Sunday, September 9, 2007


1976/USA/Directed by Renee Daalder

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Conceived by producers Harold Sobel and Bill Lange as little more than a cheap exploitation film that would hopefully pack in the grindhouses and drive-ins for a couple of weeks before disappearing into the ether, Massacre at Central High ultimately proved to be a disappointment at the box-office during its initial run. Reviews were also ho-hum, and in the days before the mass-marketing of home video cassettes, the film looked destined to spend its life rotting away in some obscure cinema vault, before a chance screening in 1980 at the Thalia Cinema in New York caught the attention of Times reviewer Vincent Canby, whose subsequent write-up was so glowing the film suddenly found itself in demand by repertory and art house cinemas, as well as college campuses, across America.

After being teased by an exciting television trailer for the film (it was rated ‘R’ in Australia - restricted to adults over the age of 18 - and I was only 12 at the time), my interest in Massacre at Central High was rekindled by Danny Peary’s interesting essay on the film in the second volume of his Cult Movies series (Dell Publishing 1983), and I finally caught up with the movie via its local Australian tape release on the Merlin Video label. To my surprise, I found the film more than lived up to its reputation, and it has since developed a niche amongst my favourite B flicks from the much-maligned seventies.

Set within a teenaged world seemingly free from adult interference (although more than half of the action takes place within the walls of the titular high school, no teachers or ‘grown-ups’ appear in the film until the final sequence, and even then they exert no discernable influence), Massacre at Central High takes as its basis the well-worn theme of the new kid at school and his struggle to be accepted without having to change who he is. David (Derrel Maury) arrives for his first day at Central High and instantly catches wind of the stifling atmosphere inflicted by the ruling bullies Bruce (Roy Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond) and Paul (Damon Douglas). Unfortunately, David’s childhood friend Mark (the prolific Andrew Stevens, son of Stella and writer/producer/director and/or star of Z grade scuzz like Night Eyes, Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III, Victim of Desire, Illicit Dreams, ad nauseam) is also part of this dominating clique, and his refusal to either join them or give into their ways immediately causes tensions between the two.

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After David sinks a few mean right hooks into Bruce, Craig and Paul for attempting to rape two pretty students (70s cult fave Cheryl ‘Rainbeux’ Smith and future Eight Is Enough star Lani O’Grady), the trio retaliate by crushing his leg under the wheel of a car. But rather than forcing him into line, this merely tips the brooding David right over the edge, as he sets off on his path of revenge by planning spectacular deaths for those who crippled him. Bruce plunges to his doom when Davis snips a wire on his hang glider, Craig takes a night time dive from the high board into the school’s swimming pool, only realising too late that it has been drained of water, while Paul is trapped in the back of his van and rolled backwards down a treacherous coastal road. But rather than liberate the school, the death of the three bullies only allows those which had previously been repressed to come out and try to assert their own dominance, and David (by now well and truly revealed to be psychopathic) decides that mass slaughter is the only way to get through to these people.

Featuring elements which were latter put to use in films like Class of 1984 (1982) and Heathers (1990), what helps set Massacre at Central High apart from the standard exploitationer is the assured direction and intelligent, thoughtful screenplay by Renne Daalder (whom at one point was rumoured to be a woman). The Dutch born Daalder, whose foreign upbringing no doubt helped him to create a unique insight into his vision of the American teen, went on to have a sporadic but diverse career which included orchestrating the famous ‘mass shooting’ sequence perpetrated by Sid Vicious while performing My Way in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and working as visual effects consultant for the 1994 Michael Apted thriller Blink. An interesting CV indeed....

Above: Original theatrical trailer.

Also appealing are the performances from most of the central cast, including Derrel Maury (a familiar face on seventies TV shows like Happy Days and Emergency), and Kimberly Beck, who creates a strong impression as Mark’s girlfriend Teresa. As a child and young teen, Beck appeared in episodes of The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, Land of the Giants, The Brady Bunch and others. Trash fans remember her best for her performance opposite Linda Blair in the 1979 disco schlock Roller Boogie, and as the female lead in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).

Although some of the dialogue appears a little forced and clunky, Daalder at least refrains from overdosing on seventies’ slang expressions. He also fills the film with a number of exciting set pieces (in particular, the various creative deaths), all of which are well captured in a low-key way by cinematographer Burt Van Munster (who would go on to find fame and considerable fortune as the producer of the ground-breaking and highly influential reality TV series Cops).

While it has surfaced occasionally on VHS throughout the years, and has been released as a bare bones DVD in some countries (utilizing a worn and dull print). Hopefully, it won’t be too long before Massacre at Central High receives the deluxe disc treatment, as it’s a film which deserves to find a wider niche amongst fans of provocative exploitation cinema.

As an interesting aside, Massacre at Central High was also released in a re-edited version, under the amusing but highly misleading title of Sexy Jeans! The only addition which the crazy Italians made to their print was the insertion of some near-X footage, which is spliced into the film whenever a sex scene takes place in the original print. The fact that they are inserts is made quite obvious, as the faces of the characters are never shown during these more explicit moments, and the naked bodies on display seem to be just a little too old and hairy to be high school students! The film has also been screened in the UK under the title Blackboard Massacre.

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Is there then no American auteur director? Perhaps there is one. One man who thinks up his own stories, and produces and directs them too. And also serves as his own cinematographer. Not to mention that he also does his own editing as well. All of this connected with an intensely personal and a unique vision of the world. This man is Russ Meyer.
- William Goldman, Adventures In The Screen Trade

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Often dismissed purely as a director whose work revolved around a simple fixation on big breasts (as highlighted in an episode of Seinfeld), Russ Meyer was in fact one of the most distinctive American directors of the 1960s and 70s, with a cinematic style (based on stationary cameras, low-angles and rapid-fire editing) that has helped influence some of the most important renegade filmmakers of the pasty thirty years, including John Waters and Quentin Tarantino.

Born in 1922, Meyer began his career as a combat cameraman in Europe during World War II, shooting footage for newsreels back home. While most veterans espouse a ‘war is hell’ philosophy, Meyer openly professed throughout his life that this period spent in war torn Europe was the best time of his life. Returning to the US after peace was declared, Meyer found work as a popular still photographer, shooting several of the earlier centrefolds for Playboy (including that of his future wife, Eve), before eventually returning to filmmaking in 1959 with the trendsetting, humorous nudie-cutie film The Immoral Mr. Teas. Meyer followed up Teas with several more similar films (Eve and the Handyman, Wild Gals of the Naked West) before moving into his black & white drive-in period, during which he helmed his first really important and influential films, including Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965) and the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).

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As the sixties progressed, Meyer turned his attention to making tough, exotic colour sex fantasies like Common Law Cabin (1967), Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers (1968) and Vixen (1968), whose impressive box-office success led 20th Century Fox to lure Meyer across to the studio to direct the sleazy, supremely enjoyable Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which – like several of his subsequent films – was co-written by prominent film critic Roger Ebert.

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Despite the commercial success of Dolls, it became clear that Meyer did not work well within the confines of a studio, and while his output slowed somewhat during the 1970s, he continued to turn out his own independent, softcore sex fantasies like Supervixens (1976) and Up! (1978), his work remaining unique even as hardcore pornography became commonplace. One interesting ill-fated project from this period was the Sex Pistols movie Who Killed Bambi?, which Meyer was hired to direct (from an Ebert screenplay and with Marriane Faitful cast as Sid Vicious' mother) before funding fell through after only a few days filming (the project eventually morphed into Julien Temple's The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle in 1980).

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Unfortunately, despite many threats, Meyer was never able to complete a feature after Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens in 1979. His much vaunted 10 hour autobiographical documentary The Breast of Russ Meyer, which he first started talking up in interviews in the early-80s, never appeared, nor did his planned 1990s colour remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (surely an idea that would never have worked). He did manage to direct a music video for late-80s L.A. glam/metal band Faster Pussycat, and also assembled a video centrefold of top-heavy model Pandora Peaks in 2001, before dementia began to take an increasing toll on his health, with the director finally succumbing to pneumonia in 2004.

The world of Russ Meyer is as unique as any artist of our times. You can look at five seconds of a Russ Meyer film and know that you’re watching a Russ Meyer film. – Roger Ebert


LORNA (1964)
A rural, Fellini-esque melodrama filmed in black & white, Lorna marked Meyer’s breakaway from the relatively harmless nudie films to more gritty, and violent subject matter, and with Lorna Maitland in the title role, his pattern of using big busted, pneumatic women was established. Features an amazing opening credits sequence, where the camera tracks along an isolated road before coming to a halt on a preacher who warns the audience not to go on.

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Meyer’s most famous independent film was essentially a remake of his previous Motor Psycho (1965), substituting the three male bikers of the earlier film with a trio of tough, hard driving go-go dancers and creating one of the most popular cult movies of all time in the process (along with establishing Tura Satana as one of the most iconic b-movie stars of the period).

Marijuana smuggling forms the narrative backbone of this tough little film set on the US/Mexican border. Coming off like a Don Siegal actioner with the addition of lots of raunchy sex, this is one of Meyer’s more underrated works, and features a strong lead performance from Charles Napier and a snappy theme song by the Jacks and Balls.

One of Meyer’s only two studio films (1971’s ill-fated The Seven Minutes being the other), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a rollicking exploitation epic about an all-girl rock group, The Carrie Nations, and their sleazy, spectacular rise to superstardom. Bearing no relation to Valley of the Dolls (whose author Jacqueline Susann sued to have a disclaimer included during the opening credits), Dolls boasts one memorable scene after another, along with one of the best pop/rock soundtracks of all time.

Meyer’s final feature was his ultimate expression of sexual parody, an hilarious and remarkably well-edited look at the exaggerated sex life of small town America, starring one of the director’s greatest finds, Kitten Natividad.

Also Recommended: The Incredibly Strange Film Show was a great UK documentary series on cult filmmakers, hosted by Jonathan Ross and produced by Channel Four in 1988. One of the best episodes was devoted to Meyer, featuring interviews with the director, Tura Satana, Roger Ebert and Kitten Natividad, along with clips and a peak at the unfinished The Breast of Russ Meyer. Currently unavailable on DVD. Also look for Russ in an amusing cameo as a video store clerk in the 1987 satire Amazon Women on the Moon.

Note: The above article was previously published in Filmink magazine.

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