Return to Horror High is a low-budget slasher from the late ‘80’s, which was a notoriously bad time for the sub-genre. Not only were the films cheap, they generally had terrible actors and even worse effects. It was very hard to do a slasher during this time, or at least to do it right. The stalk-and-slash formula had played itself out after only half a decade and was now simply trudging along.
Nobody wanted another one when Return to Horror High came along, but luckily the filmmakers seemed keenly aware of that fact. They did want to retread old territory, but not in the way that everyone else was doing it. Instead, they wanted to do it intentionally by actually centering their picture on the production of a low-budget slasher movie. It’s completely meta and, as such, remains a major standout of the era for being so ahead of its time. Return to Horror High doesn’t necessarily feel like a precursor to Scream so much as it feels like the sort of genre commentary that might have been made after Scream. It has more in common with pictures like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and The Cabin in the Woods than Wes Craven’s subversive slasher.
One of the most interesting things about Return to Horror High is that, as you go through the film, you never really know what you’re looking at. Each scene can and often does change at the drop of a hat. Are you watching the movie, or the movie-within-the-movie? It’s as much of a fun guessing game as trying to determine who the killer is and it really helps to keep the audience engaged.
The dialogue between the crew members and the scenes depicting them actually shooting their “masterpiece” are all spot on. Sometimes they’re even a little close for comfort. One of the most perfect, funniest, unsettling scenes comes in the midst of what we think might be a flashback. A girl is on a date with a guy and it’s made abundantly clear that she was kind of forced into it. When she wants to leave, he won’t let her and forces her down and it looks like we’re headed toward a pretty horrifying and harrowing rape scene—totally unexpected and out of place in this kind of campy comedy—until the producer’s head leans into frame and proclaims that “Her tits need to be in the shot!”
I think one of my personal favorite things about the film is the fact that its meta-humor can be sometimes unintentional as well. George Clooney makes an appearance here as the actor initially cast as the lead in their production. But he gets a phone call for a much bigger job: a recurring part on a TV series (possibly set in a hospital?) which is not too different from a guy who was doing movies like Return to Horror High before hitting it big with ER.
Of course, as much as it was ahead of its time, the movie was completely of its time as well. While it might be a few years late to the party, it really has its finger on the pulse of the ‘80’s slasher. The formula was instantly recognizable by this point and this production catered to that. There’s also a great back and forth between the director who wants to make a serious and important piece of art and the producer who is convinced that the only thing they’ll be able to sell to people is blood and boobs. It was extremely relevant to the time and the struggles of even the biggest horror filmmakers of the day and honestly not a whole lot has changed since.
Compared to the other slashers that were being made at the time, like Mountaintop Motel Massacre, Slaughter High, and Chopping Mall, Return to Horror High definitely stands out. It was made for just as much money as those others and probably the same amount of time. It’s very cheaply done and can’t really hide that, but it rises above it nonetheless because it’s a smart film. It’ always easier to forgive things like that in something that’s entertaining you and making you laugh.
That’s probably why people have an easier time digesting horror comedies in general. When something is trying to scare you, immediately you get defensive and try to look for everything wrong with a film in order to disarm that. But there’s no reason to do that with a picture that just wants you to have fun with it, and that’s ultimately what Return to Horror High is all about. It’s still completely, over-the-top campy, but it’s very smart about it.
From the structure, to the meta deconstruction of the slasher genre, to the almost non-linear style and plot, to even the killer’s reveal, Return to Horror High is completely ahead of its time and is fascinating for that. It manages to stand out and shine in a time where not a whole lot did, rising from that late-80’s void that still managed to produce some greats. I’m not sure if I would call Return to Horror High one of those greats, necessarily, but it comes damn close.