I can think of no better way to exemplify my gluttonous yet astutely reflective consumption, digestion, and regurgitation of horror than by beginning with a film that does much the same. The 1981 Paramount Pictures film Student Bodies film gained a cult like following after it re-emerged on late night television via USA Up All Night which showcased other greats such as Reform School Girls (1986), Summer School (1987), and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989).
My choosing this film is not to argue its critical acclaim but rather to recognize this film’s pioneering ability to analyze and comment on the horror film. Student Bodies captures everything great about the genre: memorable deaths, formulaic quirks, and cheese (literally in this case, from Principal Peters’ pants).
On a more serious level, I believe the film is a neglected piece of horror history. Too often authors laud the Scream (1996) series as the trail-blazer for postmodern, intertextual, self-reflection in horror. However, I argue that Student Bodies accomplished the same level of introspection nearly 15 years prior to Scream. [i] Granted, Student Bodies never shared the same reception but it nonetheless successfully critiques the genre. Some have likened Student Bodies more to the Scary Movie (2000) series rather than Scream. I argue though, Student Bodies is much more part of the genre as a horror comedy that nonetheless maintains the primacy of the horror formula.[ii] This is not as true for the Scary Movie films in which horror is secondary to lewd jokes and nudity which have little to nothing to do with the horror genre. What I want to show here is, exactly what the front cover of the DVD claims, “Before there was Scream, there was Student Bodies”.
Isabella Pinedo, Valerie Wee, Andrew Tudor, and Michael Fuchs are among others who have written about the postmodern horror film.[iii] Together they characterize the postmodern film’s blurring of boundaries and self-reflexivity that scholars suggest Scream accomplishes through humor and references to other horror films and generic conventions. Furthermore, when discussing postmodern horror, scholars argue that the killer is no longer an outsider but one of the members of the core peer group and the victims are no longer cautionary examples of how to behave conservatively. Finally, there is a definitive blurring of the boundary of reality and fiction which contributes to the permanent sense of destabilization. Murders are increasingly violent and irrational, and normality is never fully restored.
Given these characteristics of the postmodern film, Student Bodies fits the description perfectly. While most horror scholars used the film Scream as the model, I plan to show Student Bodies did much the same in 1981. Student Bodies begins to blur boundaries between genres by blending horror and comedy. By no means did it pioneer this technique (as evidenced by well-known films such as the Abbott and Costello Meet… films and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein -1974); however, it moves beyond blurring boundaries between genres, earning its place among early postmodern horror.
The humor in Student Bodies illuminates several horror tropes, which not only draws attention to them but destabilizes them. Most notable of these conventions is the body count, which Student Bodies tallies through bold flashing numbers that included even the death of a fly. The film also includes a boyish virgin female lead androgynously named Toby who dons the button “For the last time, I said NO”. [iv] And there are killer point of view film shots, overkill (notably through the sounds of war and bombing during the murder of Patti), victims who engaged in “naughty” acts (evidenced by Principal Peters labeling pictures of the victims as slut and harlot), mysterious phone calls, conveniently unlocked doors, distinct killings of females, and the reliance on a seemingly authoritative male or psychologist for direction.
Student Bodies allows audiences to question horror conventions such as weapon choice and death after sex. The preferred method of killing males is bagging them up in trash bags. This is consistent with horror scholarship which argues that the murder of females is more violent, personal, and up close. However, when considering unprepared boyfriends who use dialogue such as “Julie, you’re not responding to my maleness”, the trashbag killings suggest that the men are ineffective trash to be disposed of. While the film initially kills everyone after sex it also brings everybody back at the end and suggests that not everyone is who they seem. No longer harlots, the ending suggests that the characters are now worthy, effective, and her peers now crown the boyish Toby as prom queen. Furthermore, if we accept the ending and Toby does come back from the grave then she is never completely punished for her sexual act. She was mentally and physically tortured for her abstinence but gains superhuman powers post-coitus to defy death, and avenge her murder. Consequently she gains power as a final girl from having intercourse.[v] Essentially every character gains life after sex: while, the audience initially accepted the deaths of all the major characters after they had sex, when they re-emerged at the end and did not fall victim to swine flu then we must accept that they are thriving characters who end up unpunished for sex.
Student Bodies offers explicit commentary on the horror genre. The film begins with the declaration, “This motion picture is based on an actual incident. Last year 26 horror films were released…None of them lost money”. This alone suggests that horror is a growing wildly popular genre. The film comments further on the legitimacy of horror film through the interchange, “Who thinks the American public wants to watch such trash (horror films)?” “You’re right dear, now let’s go or we’ll miss Dukes of Hazzard.” This dialogue offered by the couple that Julie was babysitting for allows the audience to consider the humor within the statement. This tongue in cheek avowal suggests horror is as widely consumed as something like Dukes of Hazzard.[vi]
Student Bodies goes beyond mere references to self-reflexivity to mark its own status as a postmodern horror film. Without argument this film nods at: Friday the 13th, Halloween, When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas, Prom Night and Carrie. Aside from visual and audible similarities such as Carpenter-esque music scores and proms, Student Bodies actively interjects and offers commentary about itself. The breather speaks to the audience thus incorporating them into the experience as active participants, “Hello, it’s me, The Breather. You’re probably wondering who I am. Who could I be?” Furthermore, the film superimposes body counts onto the screen, reminds viewers when doors are unlocked, who is a suspect, and narrates when characters are making mistakes. The most overt example of Student Bodies recognizing itself as a film is during the interjection of the MPA-like character who actively earns the film its R rating by stating “Fuck You”.
The film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Its Wizard of Oz-esque ending suggests that Toby contracted swine flu as a result of her sexual repression which leads the audience to question how much of the film was real. We’re led to believe the whole thing was imagined and the only murder is that of Toby at the hands of Hardy at the end of the film. The uncertainty of the ending leaves the audience unclear of the status of stability and normality. If the audience accepts that this was manifestation of sexual repression, then we must believe that Hardy is the killer and he was part of the core peer group, much like Billy Loomis in Scream. The audience never gains certainty of what the truth is, who the killer is, or that the killer was sufficiently vanquished. The unstable ending leaves the audience unclear of the origins of danger and furthermore doing just about everything that Scream does, before it does it.
[i] According to boxofficemojo.com the lifetime gross for Student Bodies is around $5,165,432. If there is any question about the lackluster reviews, see : MICKEY ROSE’S ‘STUDENT BODIES’ The New York Times, October 18, 1981 Sunday, Section 1; PT2; Column 1; Cultural Desk; Pg. 67, 536 words, By VINCENT CANBY; Student Bodies dead on arrival The Globe and Mail (Canada), August 8, 1981 Saturday, 511 words, VICKY SANDERSON; ‘Bodies’ Kills Cliches The Washington Post, August 11, 1981, Tuesday, Final Edition, Style; C10, 756 words, By Gary Arnold
[ii] On a most basic level, imdb.com characterizes Scream as horror, Scary Movie as comedy, and Student Bodies as horror comedy.
[iii] For more information regarding postmodern horror, see: Michael Fuchs, “A Horrific Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Simulacra, Simulations, and Postmodern Horror,” Landscapes of Postmodernity: Concepts and Paradigms of Critical Theory, ed. Petra Eckhard, Michael Fuchs, and Walter W. Hölbling (Lit Verlag, 2010), 71-90.; Isabel Pinedo, “Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film” and “. . . And Then She Killed Him: Women and Violence in the Slasher Film” from Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), 9-50, 69-87.; Andrew Tudor, “From Paranoia to Postmodernism? The Horror Movie in Late Modern Society,” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (BFI, 2008): 105-16.; Valerie Wee, “The Scream Trilogy, ‘Hyperpostmodernism,’ and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film” V Wee – Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Fall 2005) pp44-61.
[iv] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/StudentBodies offers insight into more tropes within the film.
[v] The term final girl was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.