HELL HIGH (1989)

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Hell High

HELL HIGH (1989)
Directed by Douglas Grossman
Available on Arrow Video Blu-Ray

After quitting the school football team, studious Jon-Jon is befriended by a group of misfits led by scheming prankster, Dickens. After being reprimanded in class by science teacher Miss Storm, Dickens decides payback is in order, so he, Jon-Jon, flirtatious Queenie and tubby joker Smiler stop by the swamp en-route to her house in order to play a prank. However, what starts off as a bit of fun soon gets out of control and the teens find their futures in jeopardy.

Coming in at the end of the slasher era, though pre-production began years earlier, low budget horror HELL HIGH takes on a different approach to what many horror fans may expect from an instalment in this genre. Decidedly less of a slasher and more of a revenge thriller, the film pits its troubled teens against authority and their more popular peers as the delinquents resort to whatever they can to get their kicks. Unfortunately, Dickens’ idea of fun knows fewer boundaries than that of his pals and his incessant need to humiliate could put all their lives at risks.

After the opening scenes of a young girl who accidentally has a hand in the deaths of two love-struck teens at the swamp, HELL HIGH flashes forward to a high school decades later where the killings have become nothing more than local myth and legend. A busy high school with its social circles of all kinds swell in the corridors but it’s in the science class where we meet the main characters involved in the film, starting with troublemaker Dickens.

When we first meet Dickens, we can tell what type of loser he is. As he messes around in class before becoming confrontational with biology professor Miss Storm, played by Maureen Mooney, it’s evident that the boy’s more than wild. He’s scheming and devious. Christopher Stryker rises to the occasion to embody this smarmy, smug-faced teen who does what he wants, as well as bringing a darkness to him that emerges over the course of the film. Dickens’ pranks turn from laughable to worrying as the fun starts to get out of hand and its those who’ve been roped into his hijinks who have to make a choice of whether enough is enough before it’s too late. For some of them, that choice has already been made for them…

Jon-Jon, on the other hand, is our gateway character. A student who finds himself roped into Dickens’ circle when his former football teammates and coach turn their back on him for quitting the team. Christopher Cousins portrays him as a quiet guy but one who’s easily led, especially when he becomes smitten by the group’s only girl, Queenie, who can’t resist making eyes at him. Being pursued and welcomed into the clan with open arms, Jon-Jon feels quickly at home with his new friends but he doesn’t realise how far they’re willing to go to get their kicks. When crunch time happens, will he walk away or will he do whatever it takes to protect his pals?

HELL HIGH likes to titillate with its scenes of half undressed school teachers but it provides some chilling and disturbing imagery when the youngsters of the film become predators in a frightening fashion. From harassing and tormenting someone in their home to leave them frightened out of their skin, to an attempted rape, this isn’t exactly an entertaining watch. As the terrorising of the innocent intensifies, I couldn’t help but wish the revenge slasher element would rear its head. Instead, the film embraces the styling of a home invasion thriller with its students donning masks to further freak out their target (Dickens’ Noseybonk-esque mask with bucked teeth and a perm wig will surely unnerve). When it eventually makes the switch of genres into the slasher, it’s a little too late to pile on the tension so the kills come thick and fast. Whilst it’s a welcome result to the film’s plot, it still feels like it could have been worked into the movie better to give the kills more of an impact and for the killer to saviour the moment in a rare outing where the viewer will likely be in support of the homicides they commit. Though I suppose this sudden outburst of kills accurately reflects the reaction of the killer as they snap and a switch flips in their brain to dole out a serving of justice of their own.

Despite being a low budget horror, HELL HIGH achieves many great things in this unusual slasher. It pretty much nails the high school delinquency and brings a darkness to the film that I didn’t quite expect, which is to me the most terrifying part of the movie – not the killings, but the lengths these kids will go.

If you’re expect blood and guts, then this movie will not live up to such expectations, but for a movie inspired by those types of films yet prepared to tread its own path, HELL HIGH certainly has something going for it if you’re prepared to give it a chance.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

Arrow Video have released HELL HIGH on Blu-Ray, loaded with extras for the film connoisseur.

The film comes with an optional introduction with Joe Bob Briggs, which does its best not to spoil the film but presents a run down of things that happen in the film that is a slight spoiler in itself, so it’s best to watch after seeing the movie for the first time.

Other special features on the disc include a range of new and archival assets:

Audio commentary with writer, producer and director, Douglas Grossman, and cinematographer Steven Fierberg – In this new Arrow Video commentary, Grossman and Fierberg go into detail about making this extremely low budget film. At one point, they ran out of money and had to resume filming a year later. Fortunately, everyone was free to jump back on it. Despite its humble beginnings, the film attracted editor Claire Simpson who followed up Hell High with Oliver Stone’s Platoon which she won an Academy Award for and has had a long and brilliant career in editing.

Listening to Grossman and Fierberg talk about the movie gives you an appreciation for movie making as a whole. It’s no easy task and a hell of a lot goes into creating what is seen on screen, especially so when you’ve got very little money to play with! A fantastic listen on the making of  a movie and the process of filmmaking.

Audio commentary with Douglas Grossman – In this commentary, Douglas Grossman touches on elements previously mentioned on the other commentary though does give new insights too. In this particular commentary track, Grossman gives more context to costumes, the actors and set design so is still worth a listen to pick up on the full picture.

Audio commentary with Joe Bob Briggs – In this fun, animated commentary, Joe Bob Briggs provides observations on the movie and details how Hell High fit into the slasher genre. He also talks about certain horror and slasher movie tropes and the film’s interpretation of these.

School’s Out! Interview with Douglas Grossman (43 mins) – Douglas Grossman speaks about his introduction to the film industry, working on other movies, meeting his co-writer Leo Evans and about the Hell High shoot and cast.

A Beautiful Nightmare – Interview with cinematographer Steven Fierberg (29 mins) – Steven Fierberg talks about how he got into filmmaking and goes in depth about his career.

Jon-Jon’s Journey – Interview with actor Christopher Cousins (19 mins) – In this new interview for Arrow Video’s release, Christopher Cousins discusses his start in films and how he was hired by top casting director Louis DiGiaimo for Hell High. DiGiaimo has been casting director for The Godfather and The Exorcist though Hell High wasn’t in the same leagues as either of those movies. Cousins laughs when reminiscing about the film shoot for Hell High, which was originally titled as What You Wanna Do Tonight. He thought the film was meant to be satirical but he wasn’t sure it turned out as planned.

Whilst discussing the film, Cousins also talks about his character Jon-Jon and the relationships he forged on set, particularly with Christopher Stryker (Dickens) who sadly died in 1987 due to AIDS. He talks fondly of his friend and how they kept in touch right to the very end.

The More The Better – Interview with actress Maureen Mooney (20 mins) – Actress Maureen Mooney talks about her start as an actress in this new interview for Arrow Video. After explaining about getting into the film business rather quickly, securing her first job from the first interview she attended, she discusses the character of Miss Brooke Storm who she plays in Hell High. Mooney says she doesn’t see the film as a horror and describes her interpretation of the character of Brooke Storm as being a troubled and traumatised woman. I think we can all agree on that!

Music Is Not Sound – Interview with composers Rich Macar and Christopher Hyams-Hart (27 mins) – Rich Macar and Christopher Hyams-Hart are reunited after 35 years for this new feature in which the duo are interviewed on the sound for Hell High. They discuss how they’d worked on Maximum Overdrive together before working on Hell High and that for this particular title they used a Synclavier II synthesizer to achieve a realistic synth blend for an authentic sounding score.

Back To Schools – The Locations of Hell High – A tour of the original filming sites with author and filmmaker, Michael Gingold (13 mins) – In this feature, Michael Gingold shows the four different schools used in the movie for the high school when the film shot in 1985. Footage from the film shows the parts of the high school it correlates with 18 years on. Gingold also visits and showcases other locations from the film including Queenie’s house and Miss Storm’s house, the latter of which plays a big part in the movie.

Archival Interviews with Douglass Grossman (20 mins) and co-writer Leo Evans (12 mins)

Deleted Scene – taken from the original camera negative and muted as no audio available (2 mins) – This is an extended sequence of the teens collecting slime in the swamp. The characters are just wandering about. It doesn’t add anything extra to the movie so was most likely cut to trim down excess footage.

Alternate Opening Titles (2 mins)

Trailers and TV Spots – Raging Fury trailer (alternative title for the film), Hell High trailer and two TV spots for Hell High.

About Bat 8111 Articles
I love practical effects, stop-motion animation and gore, but most of all I love a good story! I adore B-movies and exploitation films in many of their guises and also have a soft spot for creature features. I review a wide range of media including movies, TV series, books and videogames. I'm a massive fan of author Hunter S. Thompson and I enjoy various genre of videogames with Kingdom Hearts and Harvest Moon two of my all time favs. Currently playing: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Yakuza Zero and Webbed.


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