We are told on director Rene Daalder’s website that Massacre at Central High, a forgotten 1976 horror-thriller, “predicted punk and Columbine”. It’s a bold claim, but one not hard to substantiate once you take into account its subject matter: teenagers that kill people. It’s a rough, tough, divey little film that presents a portrait of humanity at its bleakest. Education, in the film’s eyes, is nothing but a horrorshow parade of grotesques, with its denizens either suppressed by their fascist overlords or clamouring for power themselves. It doesn’t care if you like it, but it demands your attention anyway.
Not that you’d know it to look at. Compositionally, it’s a total mess. Corridors that are populated one second are empty the next. Characters’ eye lines barely match up. There’s leaden acting to put cinema’s current Queen of Lethargy, January Jones, to shame. All the characters, apparently high-schoolers, look double their ostensible ages. The more laudatory quotes about the film being a socio-political allegory in the vein of Animal Farm (Daalder’s own website collates the best ones) tend to overlook the fact that any connoisseur of low-rent 1970s pornography would likely feel at home with its intermittent bouts of softcore canoodling on beaches by firelight. This skin-flick titillation is even deployed, most shockingly, to enliven a scene of attempted rape. When the body count begins to mount up, the period 1976 dialogue tends to undercut the dramatic tension. “It’s time you all dug it! We’re talking heavy changes.” spouts one of the teens after a number of students have met with unfortunate ‘accidents’.
What Massacre at Central High has going for it, though, is a brutal originality. Already lionised by Danny Peary in his second volume of Cult Movies, its exploitation title may conjure associations with the telekinetic horror of Carrie, the demented array of killings in Happy Birthday to Me, Stockard Channing’s plastic-surgery vengeance in The Girl Most Likely To and the dull carnage of forgotten shocker Slaughter High. But its protracted ‘massacre’ remains mostly bloodless; its indiscriminate killings more disturbing by their lack of accompanying real-world context. If the film does have a cinematic cousin, it’d probably be Larry Clark’s Bully which, like most of Clark’s work, writhes around looking for exploitation credentials with a look-at-me desperate audacity to compensate for a lack of profundity. Massacre at Central High, though is less concerned with such histrionics, even if its killings, which include a dolt skydiving into some power lines after his equipment is sabotaged, are in the end more eccentric than shocking.
The film opens with a tonally ambiguous display of ‘social protest’ – a hippie scrawling a swastika on a locker door to stick it to “the little league Gestapo” terrorising the school – and ends with a thwarted attempt to blow up the entire school. That last narrative trick is, by now, old hat. Buffy Summers managed to do it in the late 1990s, though in that case she was keeping the evil contained inside the building (a demonic Mayor and petulant Principal) from getting out, rather than incinerating everyone inside with the blank, violent and unexplained nihilism of Massacre at Central High’s David (Derrel Maury) whose psycho-pathology is chalked up to a case of him merely being a self-declared “madman”.
David enters the film supposedly as our moral guide. He’s a transfer student who’s following in the footsteps of his jockish buddy Mark (a young Andrew Stevens, later to crop up in The Fury). Stumbling through a corridor looking for the student lounge (we’re later told it’s like “the fucking country club”), he hits on the school hottie Theresa (Kimberly Beck). David, at the behest of Mark, is invited to join the influential power clique of four boys that run the school: Bruce, Paul, Craig and – somewhat reluctantly – Mark himself. David goes along and witnesses the gang’s several acts of bullying. The four hi-jack and trash an idiot’s car with glee. They bully “lardass” Oscar for not being able to jump rope very well and then kick him about in the locker room. They harass a nasal student librarian, Arthur, about an overdue book loan and then wreck the place. Unimpressed, David shuns the group.
The boys think David’s spoiling for a fight but Mark insists “He’s just aloof, that’s his nature” and that he doesn’t “understand how things work around here”. But after the boys drop a car on David’s leg for his insolence, he goes on a calculated killing rampage to enact revenge after being made a “cripple” by the accident. In actuality David’s physical disability amounts little more than to a slight limp but – no matter! – he uses this as a pretext to engineer the deaths of the bullies. When he runs out of these antagonists, he fixes his gaze upon their former victims, who now are looking to muscle in on the action. He kills them as well. Finally, when killing everyone else in the school proves untenable, he kills himself, either in a confused act of martyrdom or by accident.
Many are keen to point out the similarities between Massacre’s central nutcase David and the psychopath at the heart of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, Jason ‘J.D’ Dean. Sometimes these exercises can be useful. Most people recognise Black Christmas as a forerunner to Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. Everyone accepts Reservoir Dogs owes a heavy debt to City on Fire. Forcing a lineage between an influential film (like Thelma & Louise, say) and a cult flick that came before it with tangentially similar subject matter (like Assault of the Killer Bimbos, say) is more problematic. It’s true that what’s explicit in Heathers – J.D wants to create a warped “Woodstock for the 80s” where people will observe “there’s a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because that school was society” – is subtextual, or at least unspoken, in Massacre at Central High, which tends to solve its problems by having its characters violently explode when they’ve outlived their narrative usefulness. But, thematically speaking, the two are poles apart.
A useful comparison is between the uses of music in both films. Heathers is shot through with snippets of a fictional song penned by Big Fun, ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, which is an indication of the wicked-black, fickle satire at the heart of Daniel Waters’ screenplay. Massacre, by contrast, opens with a drippy love ballad that opens with the line “You’re at the crossroads of your life/A runner chasing dreams that could come true…” which seems thoroughly unironic in its sincerity. What separates the two out from each other is the Massacre’s moral void. It’s hard to tell if its scenes of macabre death – such as a luckless swimmer headplanting into an empty swimming pool in the dark – are intended to elicit cackles or genuine chills without the ballast of Winona Ryder’s reluctant killer Veronica Sawyer at heart of it all. Similarly the film’s understanding of power structures (any position of authority corrupts absolutely) is too simplistic to be read as anything other academic posturing.
With all its self-evident low-budget foibles, it’d be shame for the film to pass into further obscurity, given that the words ‘high school’ and ‘horror’ are now more commonly associated with the self-aware irony of Scream, The Faculty, and Cherry Falls. What was given shonky sub-Mel Brooks treatment in Student Bodies is now either recognised as standardised horror fare to be recycled (Tamara, Jennifer’s Body) or rendered the stuff of stony-faced ‘social commentary’ (Elephant). But the dark heart that beats at the core of Daalder’s film is one that teen cinema has never bothered to reclaim. In its unremitting impurity it’s a film with no parent, and few children. Something to bear in mind when you next happen across an episode of Glee.