Screen Reviews
Massacre at Central High Blu-ray

Massacre at Central High Blu-ray

directed by Rene Daalder

starring Derrel Maury, Rainbeaux Smith, Kimberly Beck, Robert Carradine

Synapse Films

Massacre at Central High is nominally a horror film, but the plot and structure have as much in common with westerns as horror. You replace the school with a town, and you have a brooding stranger arrive in a town beset by outlaws who try to recruit him, and when that fails they try to get rid of him only to have him return and unleash a terrible vengeance. Rene Daalder’s script is more High Plains Drifter than Friday the 13th and has a spiritual cousin in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors.

A group of rich kid bullies terrorizes Central High School without resistance until new arrival David (Derrel Maury) appears. His old friend Mark is one of the the gang and wants David to join up with them in running roughshod over the school. David declines the invite and just wants to live and let live. He tries to avoid conflict, but when Bruce (Ray Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond), and Paul (Damon Douglas) escalate their attacks by attempting to gang rape Mary (Rainbeaux Smith) and Jane (Lani O’Grady), David chooses a side and attacks the bullies, saving Mary and Jane. But no good deed goes unpunished, and payback comes when Bruce, Craig, and Paul confront David while he is working on a car, knocking the car off a jack onto David’s leg. David returns to school weeks later and begins his systematic, murderous attack on Bruce, Craig, and Paul. With the bullies vanquished, the formerly powerless students start planning a new Utopia at the school. It doesn’t take long though, and the oppressed become the oppressors and a battle for supremacy of the school begins anew. At this point you realize that the story is based less on Lord of the Flies and more closely resembles George Orwell’s Animal Farm. With the student body again under threat, the savior of Central High continues his war against tyrants, and when pipe bombs don’t get the message across, David decides the only option is to blow up the entire school. A difficult to miss aspect of the film is the utter lack of adults or authority figures in the school or any of the kids’ lives. The entire universe of the movie is the school, the beach, and David’s garage, which is clearly his sanctuary from an abusive home life. It is the violation of that sanctuary that ultimately unleashes his homicidal rage. Adults in authority finally show up at the film’s climax but only when the actual school building is in danger. They are utterly impotent to aid the students and only arrive when the institution is in danger, which will soon unleash a new set of monsters, which is what it does.

Although it isn’t a lost or particularly obscure film, Massacre at Central High has never been the beloved cult classic that one might expect. In 1981 Roger Ebert named the film as one of his Guilty Pleasures along with Invasion of the Bee Girls and Bugsy Malone. The film has also been cited as a proto-slasher and inspiration for Heathers (1988). While it certainly has a sizable body count, there is almost zero gore and none of the kills is typical of slasher movies. Most slasher kills are with some kind of penetrative weapon: knife, pitchfork, axe, etc. Massacre relies on staged accidents and pipe bombs, which are effective but maybe lack the viscera that makes slasher films pop. Apart from blood and violence, the other big elements to motor a good exploitation movie are sex and nudity, and where blood may be in short supply, the naked body quotient delivers.

Often exploitation movies have a couple of cast members who go on to actually have showbiz careers, but nearly the entire cast of Massacre at Central High have notable filmographies. Derrel Maury is best known as Mario Mastorelli on Happy Days and the spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi. Kimberly Beck would go on to slasher film immortality as Trish Jarvis in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Rainbeaux Smith never had mainstream success but was a legend of exploitation cinema with one of the most impressive filmographies of drive-in movies, which Andrew Stevens collected a Golden Globe nomination for, The Boys in Company C. Lani O’Grady played Mary Bradford on Eight is Enough. Robert Carradine continues to work but will be forever known as uber-nerd Lewis in the Revenge of the Nerds films.

Massacre at Central High had a difficult restoration process, but the final results are a very nice looking and sounding film that manages to strike aesthetically pleasing but accurate night shots, which is not always the case with films of this era. The disc extras include Hell in the Hallways: The Making of Massacre at Central High featuring cast interviews and recollections of making the film, an archival interview with director Rene Daalder, and the Massacre at Central High episode of The Projection Booth podcast. Synapse has delivered all the elements to please fans of this film and to entice the curious to check out one of the unsung but influential exploitation films of the mid-1970s.

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