Night School (1981) opens with a series of shots of lamp lit alley ways and wet streets as the credits roll. These images of historic Boston evoke the nighttime terrors of Jack the Ripper and the aura of mystery surrounding 19th century architecture. With the stage set, the plot proceeds with a psycho serial killer in a motor cycle helmet decapitating the students of an all girl college and depositing their heads in water. The Harvard educated Lt. Austin (Leonard Mann) is on the case with Prof. Millett (Drew Snyder), an expert in Melanesian headhunters and preying on coeds, is the prime suspect as every victim had taken Millett’s class. However, it isn’t long before Lt. Austin begins to suspect that there is more to Millett’s assistant, Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward), than meets the eye.
Director Ken Hughes brings the same workman-like procession to Night School as he did to such notable films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Cromwell (1970). Hughes’ approach to suspense is studied yet affecting, successfully emulating many of the tropes evident in Dressed To Kill (1980) and the Italian giallo film. Night School is better directed than it is written by Ruth Avergon. The film drips with atmosphere and the editing creates suspense while the images remain mysterious.
Avergon’s script for Night School is such that it’s only a half-hour into the film’s eighty-eight minute runtime that the identity of the killer is obvious. Hughes’ adopted style sustains the film up until the twist ending but Avergon’s script includes a second practical joke twist ending that lessens the impact of the film overall. A poor sense of comedic relief seems to plague the final act of Night School when the film should have the audience on the edge of their seats. Most of this comic relief comes in the form of banter between Lt. Austin’s partner, Taj (Joseph R. Sicari), and a peeping tom they have in custody (played by Bill McCann).
At the time that Night School was made Rachel Ward had never acted in a film before. Ward holds her own opposite Leonard Mann who was no stranger to the slasher genre having appeared in a number of Italian productions. Ward was impactful enough in Night School to land the femme fatale role in Burt Reynolds’ film Sharky’s Machine (1981). In Night School, a film that’s more style than substance, Ward’s highly emotive eyes and deadpan delivery are essential to imbuing her character with a threatening moral ambiguity.
A one time “video nasty”, Night School has garnered a cult following over the years. Though less sensationalist and gory than other “video nasty” titles, Night School has nonetheless reaped the benefits of having been banned in Britain. There isn’t much that is distinct about Night School other than the fact that it pre-dates the popular codification of dramatic mechanisms within the horror sub-genre of the slasher.