For the past week, we’ve been doing Back T0 School here at the Shattered Lens: 76 high school and teen film reviews, all posted in chronological order. We started with two films released in 1946 and now, we’ve finally reached the golden age of teen films: the 1980s.
You really can’t take a look at 80s teen films without reviewing at least one slasher film. With the twin box office successes of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980, there were literally hundreds of slasher films released in the early 80s. Since those films were specifically targeted towards a teen audience, it’s not surprising that quite a few of them took place in high school. And, since the majority of these films were also low-budget affairs, we also should not be surprised that the majority of them were filmed in Canada. In other words, this would appear to be the perfect opportunity for me to review my favorite Canadian slasher film, Prom Night! However, I’ve already reviewed that film so, instead, let’s take a look at the next best thing.
First released in 1981, Graduation Day has a great opening. Various good-looking teenagers compete in athletic activities. One guy throws the shot put. Another one does the pole vault. A dark-haired girl does gymnastics. In the stands, other teenagers cheer and smile because apparently, they’re really into the shot put. Standing on the sidelines, Coach Michaels (Christopher George) shouts things like, “GO! GO! GO!” Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) runs the 100 meter race. “GO, LAURA, GO! 30 SECONDS LAURA!” Coach Michaels shouts. We get a close-up of a stop watch. Then we get a close-up of Laura running. Then we get a close-up of everyone in the stands cheering insanely. And then a close-up of …. well, let’s just say there’s a lot of close-ups. Laura crosses the finish line and then collapses dead of a heart attack. What makes this montage of competition, cheering, and death all the more fascinating is that there’s a wonderfully bad song playing in the background. “Everybody wants to be a winner!” the singer tells us. And I guess that’s true…
Anyway, jump forward a few months and now, mere days before high school graduation, somebody with a stop watch is killing the members of the track team! What’s interesting about this is, despite the fact that they’re the only targets of this killer, we really don’t get to know much about any of the members of the team. By that I mean that most of them are only really seen three times in the movie: during the opening credits, when they die, and then at the end of the movie when their bodies are discovered. One of them — a blonde girl — is only seen twice, reportedly because the actress playing her got mad and walked off the movie before her death scene was filmed. Hence, we only see her at the start of the film and then at the end of the film when another character stumbles over her head. (In a move that would be copied by Tommy Wiseau in The Room, director Herb Freed gave all of her lines and her death scene to a totally new character, played by future horror mainstay Linnea Quigley.) The end result may be the only slasher film where the victims themselves are all largely red herrings.
Instead, Graduation Day spends the majority of its time with the possible suspects. Graduation Day came out at a time when the North American slasher film was still largely influenced by Italian giallo films and, as a result, the film is structured like a whodunit. When we see the killer, all we see are the black gloves that he or she wears whenever committing murder. So, who could the killer be?
Could it be Laura’s grieving and bitter boyfriend, Kevin (E. Danny Murray), who appears to be in his 40s but is apparently a high school student?
Could it be the grieving and bitter Coach Michaels, who is being forced to retire as a result of Laura’s death?
Could it be Laura’s sister, Anne (Patch McKenzie), who knows karate and always seems to pop up right before anyone is murdered?
Could it be the principal (Michael Pataki), who is automatically a suspect just because he’s played by Michael Pataki?
Or maybe it’s the school’s music teacher, who is fat, balding and wears a powder blue leisure suit?
Or maybe it’s the school security guard, MacGregor (Virgil Frye), who says stuff like, “I could hurt you bad if I put my mind to it!”
Or maybe it’s Felony, the band that shows up to play at some sort of weird pre-graduation roller skating party? Felony — which was an actual band that apparently had one hit in the early 80s — plays a 10-minute song called Gangster Rock. Now, personally, I happen to really like the song so I’m going to include it below. Be warned that, while Felony was performing, the unseen killer managed to kill both Linnea Quigley and her boyfriend, so watch at your own discretion.
How much you enjoy Graduation Day is going to depend on who you see it with. Like most of the early 80s slasher films, Graduation Day is a film that’s best viewed with a group of your most snarky friends. As a group, you can consider such oddities as the fact that, though the film takes place in a large high school, it appears that there’s only about 40 students in the graduating class. You can point out that every single character in the film appears to be a potential homicidal maniac. You can enjoy the nonstop bitterness of Christopher George’s performance. You can talk about different your graduation day was from the one shown in this film. You can argue about who the killer is and then, at the end of the film, you can wonder how someone that stupid could have managed to kill 7 people in one day without anyone ever noticing. Even better, you can all get up and dance to Gangster Rock, just like the doomed characters in the film.