Spoiler warning! This post contains key plot elements from the horror slasher flick Return to Horror High. If you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it (or don’t–it’s actually pretty terrible). Consider yourself warned!
Before his breakout role as heartthrob Dr. Doug Ross in the long-running medical drama ER, George Clooney made a splash in the horror genre with roles in Grizzly II: Revenge, Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Return to Horror High, in which he plays an ill-fated and aspiring actor who’s quickly murdered before his career had the chance to take off.
Return to Horror High is a 1987 comedy slasher film (although there’s not much comedy present in the story and most of the kills are undone by the movie’s conclusion) directed by Bill Froehlich. Other than Clooney, the film stars Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, Alex Rocco, Scott Jacoby, Andy Romero, Richard Brestoff, Al Fann, Pepper Martin, and Maureen McCormick (of the Brady Bunch). The premise of Return to Horror High is initially simple–although by the end of the movie, a ludicrous triple twist turns the whole thing on its head–and revolves around a series of gruesome murders that rocked the town of Crippen in 1982. The killer was never caught. Several years later, the fictional Cosmic Pictures (known in the movie’s universe for producing low-budget horror movies) arrives in the small town to film the story of what actually happened, shooting the movie in the very halls of the now abandoned high school where the killings took place.
Of course, the cast and crew aren’t alone in the dark and creepy high school, and one by one they vanish and are seemingly killed off. George Clooney himself only sticks around for about twelve minutes into the movie before he is murdered mostly offscreen. The explanations the creep of a director, Henry Sleerik (Alex Rocco) gives for the disappearances of his actors and crew actually makes sense. They are filming a low-budget horror movie with a rather unprofessional working vibe; often actors and crew members come and go. If an actor doesn’t show up, another actor may fill in for their role and play multiple parts, like the film’s female protagonist Callie Cassidy (Lori Lethin) who plays four different characters. Despite being the lead, Clooney’s character, Oliver, is never missed (he’s offered the lead role in a television series that’s a ripoff of Miami Vice and everybody assumes he jumps ship following his murder), and he is replaced by Brendan Houghes’ Stephen Blake–formerly a student at Crippen High– a handsome young cop who investigated the initial murders and who serves as a consultant on the film.
There’s clear chemistry between Lethin and Houghs’ characters, and they remain the most likable aspects of the entire film as they decide to go rogue and investigate the disappearances plaguing the set. It’s a shame they end up dead, as is revealed by the movie’s multiple flash-forwards (do you think the creators of Lost watched this movie?). Callie herself has some excellent things to say about the role of women in horror films and their exploitation when she calls out the director for his insistence of more nudity and sex. “Why are women always the ones to be exploited?” she asks when Sleerik demands she not only film several uncomfortable sex scenes but a rape scene as well. “You don’t have to show it to know it. It’s degrading to women.”
“It sells tickets!” Sleerik insists.
“Well it shouldn’t!” she snaps.
Outside of the sleaziness of the movie within a movie, there isn’t much gratuitous nudity, so it feels like the filmmakers actually respect the argument Callie makes. She’s given a tasteful sex scene with Stephen to the tune of “Man for Me” by Wendy Fraser (after all, this is a horror movie with attractive people so sex scenes are to be expected) and at least the scene is between two consenting adults, unlike the scenes Callie’s characters are forced to endure. After he sleeps with Callie, Stephen reveals that his high school girlfriend Kathy left him for graduate school after the two had sex and he never heard from her again.
Besides the two leads, the other stand out performance of the Return to Horror High goes to McCormick’s slightly off-kilter character, Officer Tyler, who investigates the murders and seems turned on the amount of blood she gets covered in.
Speaking of blood, the gore effects are semi-decent, including one flashback scene in which a pedophilic biology teacher gets his heart cut out of his chest and left in his mouth. Interestingly, to avoid an X-rating, the scene of the biology teacher’s death had to be tamed down in post-production.
Unfortunately, the narrative threads of this movie are a hot mess and waste any potential and fun they could’ve had on a story full of stupid plot twists and unanswered questions. The film is shot in a nonlinear format, but instead of coming across as meta or groundbreaking, it just feels confusing. Callie and Stephen’s investigation is broken up by scenes of the one survivor of the recent massacre of the actors and production crew, screenwriter Arthur (Richard Brestoff), recounting how the murders took place to the Officer Tyler and Chief Deyner (Pepper Martin). There’s flashback scenes to 1982 that are soon revealed to be scenes shot for the movie-within-a movie, intercut with present day scenes of the police investigating the most recent murders and Arthur’s flashbacks of the second massacre. Yeah. It’s infuriatingly confusing.
Eventually, Callie and Stephen discover the corpses of two of the production crew, and a trapdoor leading to a basement full of the bodies of the students killed in the original massacre. Weirdly, the bodies are all intact, despite the characters telling the audiences several times throughout the movie that the original victims were all found in pieces. So where did these bodies come from? If they’re the bodies of the original students, were they dug up from their graves? Have they been chilling in the basement the whole time?
It’s not the only thing that doesn’t make sense. Callie and Stephen are confronted by the school janitor Amos, who’s revealed to be the killer…except he’s not! During a tussle, Stephen peels off Amos’ face, and discovers that he is actually Principal Kastleman (Andy Romero) and the father of Kathy, who murdered her after discovering that she was pregnant with Stephen’s baby. So what happened to Amos? Was Kastleman posing as the school janitor the entire time? And why? Stephen remembers Amos from his younger days as a student at Crippen High, so was Kastleman posing as Amos back then too? I actually liked Amos—he made for a chilling villain as he manically attempts to kill Stephen and Callie, and I would’ve included him on a list of underrated horror movie killers if it hadn’t been for the Scooby Doo-inspired reveal of Kastleman posing as Amos.
Driven insane after murdering his daughter, Kastleman killed the students in the 1982 spree, and is about to add Callie and Stephen to the body count when Stephen throws a javelin in the man’s chest, killing him. So how did Callie and Stephen die? Both of their bodies are shown on the lawn with rest of the recently killed victims.
In present day, Arthur finishes telling the story of how the production crew and actors of the film all ended up dead (although he doesn’t actually reveal anything) and the police go into the school to investigate when Arthur calls “All clear!” and all the bodies on the lawn sit up–they have in fact, been alive the entire time. As we find out, once Stephen and Callie killed Kastleman in the basement, Sleerik decided to capitalize on this by staging a massacre as a publicity stunt to promote the film. The police never realized this, and while in the basement, they discover that Kastleman is still alive and they shoot him dead when he lunges at them. Except…he’s not dead because in the movie’s conclusion, it’s revealed that Arthur is his son and that Kastleman is still alive.
The filmmakers (the real ones) were trying to tell an original and exciting story in a unique way, but the final product ended up being dull and overly convoluted. I’ll give the movie props for some decent gore effects and two likable protagonists, but I won’t recommend this movie and my suggestion is to stick with the classic slashers if you’re in the mood for an 80s horror flick.
BY MACK VELTMAN
Have you seen Return to Horror High? Let me know in the comments what you thought about the movie and what you’d like to see me review next. Stay nerdy!