The Horror Honeys: School Spirit Has Never Been This Dead...

School Spirit Has Never Been This Dead...

A Slasher Honey Genre Contemplation by Chassity

Return To Horror High (1987): Reflections on Horror Comedy

I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, the line between genres got blurred. Terms like “dramedy," “docudrama," and “horror comedy” became part of the pop culture lexicon. And with it, the meta, referential/self-referential movie was born. 

My first experience with this came from horror movies of the 90s, and I thought it was brilliantly awesome, and inclusive.

So naturally I went into watching Return To Horror High—having the knowledge that it was kind of genre-referential and kind of a spoof- expecting to be doubly impressed by what I saw. After all, this was a referential spoof that came before those of the 90s that I fell in love with. It was the kind of referential spoof that the movies I loved were based on, or at the very least, influenced by. 

As it turns out, I was wrong to have these expectations. 

A Brief Synopsis of RTHH: After a serial killer murders multiple students at Crippen High School, the school is shut down. Years later, a production company decides to shoot a horror film about the murders at the now abandoned high school. However, cast and crew begins to disappear on set as the lines between reality and fiction blur. Has the killer come back for seconds?

Here’s the thing that a lover of horror movies and spoofs like me has come to learn over the years: the key to doing one correctly is to strike the perfect balance between allowing the film to show that you know it’s supposed to be funny, and being subtle about it. Hit the audience too far over the head with the fact that you’re spoofing the slasher genre and the jokes lose their impact. It starts to feel corny, or at the very least it starts to feel like you’re making fun of the audience itself for even liking the genre.

WTF, George.
The thing about Return to Horror High, and so many slasher spoofs (just the fact that there even are “so many” is enough to make me facepalm) is that I never really get the sense that they were purposely trying to be funny. It felt more like the humor came from how bad the movie was—and in the least intentional way. 

The best of horror spoofs, at least for me, are so great because they find humor in joking about the repetitive nature of the genre tropes and clichés. The worst ones think that making a bad film on purpose and throwing in the formulaic set pieces of the genre as an afterthought are the recipe for making a horror comedy. They couldn’t be more wrong. It ends up feeling like little more than watching a bad comedian perform standup. 

The best scene in Return to Horror High, for me, was the sex scene between the cop and the blonde lady (I’m sorry, but I refuse to take up space in my brain committing the characters’ names to memory: it’s just that bad). It was the only scene that was funny because it was making fun of the ridiculousness of slasher characters having sex while there’s a killer out there stalking them, while at the same time seeming to appreciate the genre instead of belittle it. 

The only problem with this scene is in fact a problem that is another reason this movie fails to do what it set out to do. It ended up being just another scene the actors in the movie-within-a-movie were performing. And it all just got to be too confusing. 

One minute I thought I was seeing a real death of one of the actors, and it turns out to be them filming a scene. And just when I thought for certain I was watching a rehearsed scene the actors in the film-within-a-film were shooting, it turned out to be a real “death.” It was all just too much, even before finding out that none of the deaths were real, and before the multiple scenes that each seemed like the final scene wrapping things up, but then…weren’t. 

Look, I get that you could throw a quarter anywhere and (if you throw enough) one will end up eventually hitting a person who appreciates the movie and would be willing to tell someone like me why I’m “missing the point” and don’t “really” understand the fact that it’s supposed to be a comedy. These folks might even call me a film snob. 

But trust me, I do get it. I get that what I find confusing about the misdirects of what’s real in the movie and what isn’t, some will see as a hilarious joke about films that think they’re being clever with dream-within-a-dream sequences and movies about making movies.  But Return To Horror High and lots of other films like it fail at the joke and end up being worse, and more convoluted, than the films they’re poking fun at.  I can’t help it if I couldn’t connect to the movie because I was never sure what was really happening and what wasn’t, or because I wasn’t sure if the movie was in on the joke or if it was an unfortunate joke itself.

Maybe, at the end of the day, I’m just biased, as a fan of the genre. Maybe it’s like siblings who constantly fight and make fun of each other, but will stick up for each other if an outsider tries to do the same. As a lover of all the genre clichés and tropes, no matter how bad some of them are, I can’t accept a film that pokes fun at it all until that film has proven that it is simultaneously a love letter to the genre and respects the slasher film. Return To Horror High failed to prove itself in that way to me, and, that being the case, has made me rethink the way I look at horror comedies.

They've been meta'd to death!