*½/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Kristen Riter, Matthew Goldsby, Richard Brando, Joe Flood
written and directed by Mickey Rose
by Alex Jackson I understand on an intellectual level what Student Bodies is trying to do, and I admire its verve and, at times, even its wit. But it just isn't funny. The film, a 1981 spoof of slasher movies, lands with an audible wet plop. There are a few laughs, but a spoof movie needs to be chockablock with laughs if it is ever going to work at all. When joke after joke fails to produce the intended response, we don't have anything left to hang onto--and the experience becomes nothing short of excruciating. I wouldn't mind going the rest of my life never seeing another one of these movies. I think I've basically outgrown them and now demand a little bit of a challenge even from mindless escapist entertainment. Once you see enough of these comedies being done badly, you realize that you have more to lose than you do to gain from investing those eighty minutes.
What bothers me most about the film is that it squanders a solid grasp on slasher-movie conventions and, perhaps more importantly, on early-Eighties slasher-movie aesthetics, by which I mean the naturalistic minimalism we encounter in the first three Friday the 13th films. This is perhaps because Student Bodies was made at Paramount, the home of Friday the 13th, and as such shares the same genetic material. As a genre spoof, it doesn't distance itself nearly enough from the genre it's satirizing. I imagine the core audience that attended these kinds of movies week after week would see this as mainly a refreshing change of pace before returning to regularly scheduled programming. (It reminded me of when "The X Files" would throw in the occasional comedic episode.) There's nothing in the film that significantly challenges the slasher sub-genre or gets us to see it in a different way. It's not interested in tearing down cinematic much less social institutions.
The problem isn't exactly that Student Bodies is parodying a genre that's inherently self-parodying. It's that it doesn't recognize that slasher films already walk a thin line between existential horror and absurdist comedy. The victims in these movies are shallow and stupid and they blather on and on about things that don't matter, little knowing that they will eventually be murdered at random by a psychotic killer. It's a grave mistake to think these films are pretentious. By design, they are the very opposite of pretentious; they virtually deny the existence of a higher ideal, and as such they don't need to be brought back down to earth by satire.
The "early-Eighties slasher-movie aesthetic" I alluded to above embodies voyeurism, implicating the audience as fully as Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window or even Robert Altman's Nashville did. The voyeuristic quality of these films helped to make them more titillating and frightening by strengthening our suspension of disbelief. If we are spying on these people, it must mean that what we are seeing is "actually happening." But it also encapsulates the tedium of voyeurism. Spying on people who don't know they're being spied on can get really fucking boring. That aspect is what elevates the early-Eighties slasher film into a meaningful artistic statement. Life is short and yet it doesn't seem to have any purpose other than to be wasted.
Student Bodies definitely manages to emulate the look of these movies, but it doesn't betray any understanding of the philosophy behind this look. In a sense, the spoof format, with its wall-to-wall gags, neutralizes our emotional detachment. The spoof film shares with the slasher an ambivalence, perhaps even a passive hatred, towards its characters. Yet unlike the slasher film, something is always happening in these pictures and the audience is always engaged in deriding the material. Student Bodies never lets us grow bored or contemplative. If there's humour to be found in it, it's of a much less sophisticated variety than the deadpan nihilism of the first few Friday the 13th flicks. Put that way, one realizes that Student Bodies takes considerably less of an artistic risk than the films it mocks.
It's strange and semi-tragic that Student Bodies actually has more of a plot than most entries in the slasher genre. There is a killer on the loose targeting copulating couples. One of the victims is offed in a somewhat traditional manner (i.e., bludgeoned to death with a horsehead bookend) that changes from victim to victim while the second is always suffocated inside a bodybag. Virginal high-school student Toby (Kristen Riter) decides that she'll try to solve the mystery, only to find herself one of the chief suspects. Because she is known by everybody to be a virgin and, moreover, to have an established aversion to sex, she has a motive for picking off her sexualized peers.
I believe this plot point is uncommon within the sub-genre, if not exactly rare. I've seen it employed in J. Lee Thompson's 1981 Happy Birthday to Me and later in Bernard Rose's 1992 Candyman--films, both, that seem to have wanted to raise the bar at the screenplay level. By conventional standards, it's an improvement, providing a human centre and identifiable conflict. In addition, however, it literalizes the virginal protagonist's sexual repression and the killer as a subconscious manifestation of same. I sort of don't want that much of an emotional involvement in this material. I like the basic non-formula of watching people do pretty much nothing and then get murdered. With Student Bodies, writer-director Mickey Rose has apparently determined that the original films didn't have enough meat to sustain a parody, forcing him to improve on them in order to make fun of them.
The film isn't entirely without virtues. Some of the better digs at slasher conventions include putting a fresh spin on the "it's only a cat" cliché, as well as making the heavy-breathing serial killer (a young Richard Belzer, credited as Richard Brando) an asthmatic who has to climb long flights of stairs. Easily the best jokes in the film are those satirizing hormone-crazed teenagers. I loved the happy-go-lucky boyfriend who greets his girlfriend by sneaking up behind her and putting her in a chokehold, only to suggest immediately thereafter that they go upstairs and have sex. Too, there's a great running gag whereby the teens do it in grossly inappropriate public venues under the pretense that "funerals" and "garbage" make them horny.
I also liked the retarded janitor Malbert, who urinates in trashcans and has a blow-up doll for a girlfriend. A mysterious moustachioed comedian known only as The Stick plays him. The Stick, who got his name because he is very tall and skinny, has unusually long arms that he doesn't seem to know what to do with--during his trashcan scene, one limb dangles limply behind his back as though it were a useless appendage he had forgotten about. The character would appear to be a send-up of Robert Silverman's janitor in Paul Lynch's Prom Night, but he's a joke unto himself. I couldn't take my eyes off The Stick; he's the type of grotesque non-sequitur that Student Bodies could use more of.
Strangely enough, the film is worst when it's at its most audacious. It interrupts the action twice to address the audience directly. First the "producer" says that because they don't have any explicit sex or violence, they need to curse if they want that R-rating. Then he tells us to go fuck ourselves. Of course, as anybody who remembers Will Ferrell's sign-off in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy can tell you, that wouldn't be enough to get an R-rating today. It also raises the question, Why exactly isn't there any explicit sex or violence in this film? How can you satirize slasher movies if you refuse to satirize the sex and violence? Particularly when compared to Keenan Ivory Wayans's Scary Movie, with its ironic celebration of misogyny in its "breast implant" gag, Student Bodies feels toothless.
Certainly they were not restrained by good taste or a lack of callousness. Throughout the picture, we're shown a running body count. There are also a number of digs at the handicapped, one of which has a blind teen arguing with another in a wheelchair over who is the most disabled and thus more deserving of the handicapped parking spot. Why, then, not go the extra mile and give us the tits and gore? I guess the joke is that you went to see an R-rated film, they got your money, and so they don't have to make with the goods. It's not a joke one feels compelled to laugh along with. Also, this happens right in the middle of the story. If it appeared at the very beginning, it could possibly pass itself off as a riff on the Cecil B. DeMille-hosted prologue of The Ten Commandments, or even Dr. Frank Baxter's intro to The Mole People. As is, it's just one more petty annoyance for the audience.
The second time Student Bodies breaks away, it's so the killer can go over all the major suspects and give us a chance to guess which one he really is. This might have involved a fake projection problem in the theatrical release, but on home video the television signal goes out--we get two rolls of bluish-pink snow alternating across a black line separating them. This gag was used to much better effect in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch (where it was similarly adapted for VHS viewers), not only because the monsters had a good reason to stop the film (they are gremlins and it is the nature of gremlins to muck up mechanical things, quite unlike mad slashers, who should just want to slash people), but also because Dante built on the joke by filtering it through his uniquely off-beat sensibility. After the gremlins destroy the film, an outraged woman leaves the theatre to complain to the usher, snootily played by Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel. Bartel then summons theatregoer Hulk Hogan, who is watching a 1950s nudist-colony film, to threaten the gremlins to start the movie up again. The mere juxtaposition of these disparate elements is what makes the scene funny. The film break in Student Bodies doesn't try anything nearly as adventurous. As far as cinematic anarchy goes, it simply isn't anarchic enough.
Legend Films has given yet another long-anticipated cult classic a rather crumb-bum DVD treatment. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is strictly utilitarian. There is no significant print damage and grain levels are appropriate, but the film looks faded and old. The Dolby 2.0 audio is clear, loud, and free of distortion--sometimes to the point where it doesn't feel organically tied to the image. Aside from Student Bodies' theatrical trailer, there are no extras. Originally published: September 29, 2008.