Earlier this week I was asked to create a twenty minute training presentation as part of a job interview. In their gross misstep, I was encouraged to train the team on “anything”. It was mentioned that previous candidates had done trainings on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or even how to do the perfect round house kick. Bouncing between ideas of how to cast spells from Harry Potter and teaching the team how to count and sex horseshoe crabs, (if you had any doubt about my nerd credentials, I believe this confirms it) I opted to go with a power point presentation on “How To Survive an 80s Horror Film”.
While working on the presentation, I found myself thinking about the ways that horror permeates broader culture. It is a well-known fact that there have been several horror comedy films and spoofs such as the Scary Movie franchise. But that is too obvious. Likewise, hip hop has borrowed elements of horror for emphasis within rap lyrics.[i] I looked back on my many nights watching USA Up All Night with Rhonda Shear and I immediately thought about the film Summer School (1987). For all you fans of Agent Gibbs on NCIS, this film is worth a look. More important to this brief analysis, are the characters of Chainsaw (Cameron) and Dave (Riley).
Chainsaw and Dave are presented as a little left of center at first. In an attempt to impress a beautiful foreign exchange student, they put on a display that involves lots of fake blood and some vicious bunnies. Only to be met with the source of their inspiration, Anna-Maria (Udenio) saying, “It’s disgusting…I love it!” These guys don’t fit the mold, none of the kids in Summer School do, not even the teacher. They might love prosthetic limbs, gore, and outlandish attire, but they are really good kids. More prominently, Chainsaw and Dave are able to turn negative labels on their ear by challenging the principal’s assessment of the kids as “psychopaths”.
What is interesting to me is the way that horror / horror fans are portrayed. I find it intriguing the level to which elements of horror moved through this film (and in such a positive way) for example: Anna-Marie’s positive reaction to the biting bunnies as well as the kids reclaiming their identity from the principal via horror. I wouldn’t go out on a limb and call this film mainstream however; it certainly shows the remnants of the mid/late 70’s horror at a time which scholars and mainstream media were calling the decline of the slasher genre. In my humble opinion, the 80s was a great decade for horror, Fangoria magazine had just burst on the scene in 79’, USA Up All Night brought drive-in flicks to our living rooms, the nearest Spencer’s store sold horror paraphernalia year round, and movie monsters and make-up dominated the screen. That being said, horror typically stayed planted firmly inside its own genre without much mention or notice outside of conservative criticism.
Summer School is an excellent example of the way that horror creeps into broader culture. Without mocking or dismissing, this film utilizes horror film knowledge with reverence to pay homage to classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), as well as to portray fans in a progressive light. I struggle to find many other examples of ways in which horror was show-cased so specifically and so positively outside of the genre. I welcome any comments or dialogue about other films or television shows that illuminate larger aspects of horror in a meaningful way.
[i] For a really great reference of Hip-Hop’s use of horror check out: http://www.highsnobiety.com/2015/10/29/best-horror-in-hip-hop/