A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #6: “Return to Horror High” (1987)
by A.J. Hakari
There are usually two roads to travel in making a horror comedy. You can either weave clever jabs at cliche and convention throughout a seemingly poker-faced narrative, or you can do Airplane! with a body count. These styles are tricky enough to nail on their lonesome, but Return to Horror High wants it both ways. This greedy bastard slams cartoony sight gags and bad one-liners alongside a “serious” slasher storyline that makes no sense on its own. The result isn’t an irreverent genre send-up, so much as it’s a lazy excuse for a movie that doesn’t give enough of a shit about itself to leave the audience laughing or screaming.
Years ago, Crippen High was the site of a murder spree that rocked the community — more so because the killer himself was never caught. But not letting a thing like bad taste get in the way of a few bucks, Hollywood producer Harry Sleerik (Alex Rocco) has decided to make a cheap horror movie based off of the massacre as his next project. Furthermore, he’s shooting the whole thing in Crippen High itself, which doesn’t exactly thrill his overworked and underpaid crew. But a few bounced checks is nothing compared to the terror that awaits them in Crippen’s halls, as a certain madman has come back to continue his rampage on Tinseltown’s B-squad.
Like with He Knows You’re Alone, the world at large would have probably forgotten that Return to Horror High ever existed, were it not for a future star’s five-minute appearance. This time, it’s George Clooney turning in one of his first screen roles (as a smirk-happy leading man), and even then, he was good. But his time is short-lived, and you get to spend the rest of Return to Horror High trying to figure out what in the hell kind of movie they were aiming for here. One minute you have Marcia Brady scarfing chili dogs over corpses (seriously, they roped poor Maureen McCormick into this), and in the next, we see the aimless filming of a kill scene that serves no purpose, as a joke or a jolt. The film suddenly concerns itself with a plot at the 50-minute mark, but the damage has been done and the viewer screwed with too often to develop any interest in characters drawn as one-note stereotypes to begin with.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the 1981 spoof Student Bodies, but it’s a far more savvy (and funny) production than Return to Horror High. It takes more than mentioning some horror tropes to appear smart, and, even with comedies, it takes a coherent story to help anything you’re trying to accomplish get off the ground. Return to Horror High is as inept as they get, hurtling joke after horribly-botched joke into the void and expecting a hearty guffaw for its troubles.