Halloween was one of the biggest hits of 1978, but it took about a year for the major Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers around the country to start cashing in. Then, by the summer of 1980, slashers abounded. Although a lot of the traits that fans look for in a slasher film—masked killers, randy teens, deceptively pleasant locations, creative murders—were a part of horror and suspense movies long before John Carpenter and Debra Hill synthesized them into a left-field blockbuster, in 1980 they became crucial to the genre’s identity. Friday The 13th, Prom Night, New Year’s Evil, He Knows You’re Alone, Terror Train, and dozens more cult favorites codified what a slasher film was, setting a standard that horror writers and directors are still embracing, rejecting, mocking, quoting, and commenting on decades later.
Student Bodies was one of the first films to push back against the post-Halloween phenomenon, with mixed results. The 1981 slasher parody stars Kristen Riter (in her only movie role) as Toby, a sexually repressed high schooler who gets accused of being a serial killer known as The Breather, because she always happens to be around at the scene of a fresh murder. An assortment of obscure character actors and New York theater folk fill out the cast, playing a zany assortment of teachers and administrators, each of whom are just sick enough to be The Breather. While they all try to solve the mystery of who’s slaying the school’s biggest horndogs, the body count keeps piling up—with a handy on-screen counter keeping score.
Student Bodies did modestly well at the box office, then picked up a larger audience on home video and on cable—in part because anyone not paying close attention to the promotional materials could’ve easily been misled about what they were about to see. A lot of people who caught pieces of the movie on TV in the 1980s were pleasantly surprised by it, and still recall stray jokes and characters fondly. But seen fresh in 2015, the outsiders’ point-of-view makes it feel like a missed opportunity. In 1981, the time would’ve been right for a loving deconstruction or ferocious takedown of the Friday The 13ths of the world. Instead, Student Bodies is more like a collection of corny off-color sketches that just happen to be set within the slasher milieu.
Olive Films’ new Blu-ray edition of Student Bodies is devoid of special features, which is disappointing given this movie’s tangled history. The credited writer-director is Mickey Rose, a lifelong friend of Woody Allen and a reliable supplier of one-liners for talk shows and variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s. Rose, though, was reportedly part of a creative team that included director Michael Ritchie (best known for The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, and Fletch) and writer Jerry Belson (who also wrote Ritchie’s Smile and multiple episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Odd Couple). Due to a 1981 WGA strike, Ritchie and Belson downplayed their contributions to the film—with the former even taking an “Allen Smithee” credit on the “produced by” line. On the whole, Student Bodies plays more like something Rose made than the work of Ritchie and Belson. But mainly it plays like the product of a handful of guys in their mid- to late 40s making fun of a genre that was hugely popular with teens.
What Rose, Ritchie, and Belson missed was the reason why American cinema had suddenly gone slasher-crazy. Unlike later meta-horror pictures like April Fool’s Day or Scream—or even other parody movies like the previous year’s undoubtedly inspirational Airplane!—Student Bodies never makes any real effort to look or feel like what it’s skewering. If anything, it comes across more like one of the brightly lit, slightly shaggy high school sex comedies that were also in fashion around the time. The main difference is that Student Bodies pointedly avoids nudity and profanity, aside from one scene where a man in a suit addresses the audience and says, “Fuck you,” expressly in order to earn the movie the more lucrative R rating. Otherwise, the jokes here are smutty without being overly explicit. (That’s one of the reasons it did so well on TV: Not much had to be cut out for basic cable.)
Still, what Student Bodies lacks in incisiveness—and laughs, frankly—it makes up in gusto. The advantage of having a creative team drawn from middle-aged pros with decades of industry experience is that they knew how to put together a picture teeming with ideas and shot through with energy. In addition to adding the death-counter, they: start the story on “Jamie Lee Curtis’ birthday”; have The Breather kill one victim with paper clips; do a mid-film rundown of all the major suspects (including a woman described as “English teacher by day, English teacher by night”); draw big arrows to indicate when a potential victim has done something stupid; and dress a lot of the minor characters in shirts and hats advertising Dr Pepper and Coors. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the bulk of the content of Student Bodies apparently had a long list of complaints about the movies that were choking up the multiplex at the time.
Back in 1981, it was an ill omen for the slasher genre that even gag writers who weren’t immersed in the horror scene could so easily identify its more overused, ridiculous traits. But Student Bodies was hardly savage. The humor here is pretty soft and cutesy, with characters saying things like, “Hasn’t there been enough senseless killing? Let’s have a killing that makes sense!” That’s the kind of line that could’ve been in any broad comedy of the previous two decades. Like the movie itself, it’s fascinatingly zippy and square.