When you’re a teenager, school is the center of the universe. It’s also frequently a pretty frightening, confusing and emotionally draining place to be. It’s unsurprising, then, that plenty of slashers – from Scream to Tragedy Girls – set the action in the hallways, at least in part. Student Body, the debut feature from writer-director Lee Ann Kurr, takes that idea to its natural conclusion by stranding a bunch of kids in school and leaving them at the mercy of a masked, bloodthirsty killer (in a nod to Happy Death Day, the chosen costume is the school mascot, the Anvil, an unlikely choice that nonetheless involves a cool weapon). If the film never quite reaches the heights of its forebears, Kurr at least makes a compelling case for more school-based horror going forward.
Our Final Girl is Jane (Montse Hernandez), a meek, easily led teen whose stark difference to her peers is evidenced by Jane’s choice of Converse versus theirs, of heels. Jane is desperate to prove herself to former BFF turned HBIC Merritt (Cheyenne Haynes) and her team of cronies, which includes Harley Quinn Smith as Nadia, a confident, lollipop-toting, fishnet-wearing badass who steals every scene she’s in, whether Nadia is coyly making a move on her crush or sitting wide-legged in class like the worst kind of dude on the Subway. Jane is something of a teacher’s pet, and Mr. Aunspach (an oily Christian Camargo, who also featured in the recent, similarly themed Witch Hunt) reckons she needs to find her voice and stand out from the crowd rather than blend in.
However, although the math teacher seems kind and caring at first, after he makes a move on Jane, it’s clear Aunspach’s intentions aren’t entirely pure. However, Merritt, pissed that he won’t let her and the rest of the cool kids retake a recent test, seizes the opportunity for revenge, forcing Jane to speak up and get Aunspach fired. In one of the movie’s cleverest exchanges, Merritt tells Jane to “grow a uterus,” a smart subversion of the call to “grow some balls,” asking her rhetorically, “do you really think men lay off because you ask them nicely?” When the kids steal liquor from their potentially dodgy gym teacher and have a lock-in at the school, though, their celebration is cut short by the arrival of a killer intent on picking them off one by one.
Student Body is dynamically shot, with increasingly hilarious smash cuts deployed, which go, for instance, from a person being punched in the face to a car door closing until the kills eventually arrive. It takes a long time for anybody to be murdered, but there are only five characters, so the body count is low overall. Clearly, Kurr is intent on ensuring we get to know all these characters before the body parts start flying, much to her credit, but her film is slight and boasts unavoidably low stakes as a result. The school’s super high-tech security system is evil enough without a killer running around, but it allows for some tense moments, such as when a man stalks around in the background of some live footage, without Jane even noticing. It’s simultaneously too much plot and not enough.
The kills in general are slightly rote and same-y too, with little gore or injury detail, though weirdly Student Body isn’t being aimed at a PG-13 audience given all the F-bombs on show. There’s one terrific mid-kiss murder that’s shocking and different, which hints at what Kurr could maybe do with a bigger budget and more time. Likewise, it’s kind of obvious who the killer is, despite the attempts at misdirects throughout. Even with the female focus and impressively colorblind casting, the movie sticks to slasher conventions a little too neatly, particularly in its blood-soaked final moments. There’s the germ of a good idea here, but it’s not fully realized.
However, the performances from the young, mostly unknown cast are impressive across the board. Hernandez is a sympathetic lead, while Haynes, despite her decidedly odd delivery, makes for a compelling foil whose end goal is left tantalizingly vague for the most part. Although the lads play second fiddle (rightly so), Austin Zajur and Anthony Keyvan impress as a goofy nerd and a sensitive dream boy respectively. As Aunspach, meanwhile, Camargo looks like a cross between Cary Elwes and Crispin Glover, with all the barely contained menace that entails. In fact, the strongest element of the entire enterprise, aside from how well shot the whole thing is, are the performances.
Student Body is a little rough around the edges and, if you look a bit too closely at the premise, there’s a sense it doesn’t all fully hang together, but Kurr’s debut is undeniably enjoyable and creatively done, particularly given the obvious restrictions associated with telling a self-contained story in a single location with a small cast of newcomers. Despites its flaws, this is a tough film not to love for its scrappy energy alone. All eyes will be on what Kurr does next, hopefully with a bigger canvas.
Catch Student Body on Digital now
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Lee Ann Kurr
Writer(s): Lee Ann Kurr
Stars: Harley Quinn Smith, Christian Camargo, Montse Hernandez, Cheyenne Haynes
Release date: February 8, 2022 (Digital)
Run Time: 88 minutes