If truth be told, this is more Nancy Drew than HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (also 1983). However, this hard-to-find TV slasher flick provides some mild subgenre fun for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Gifted student, Stephanie (Diane Franklin), enrolls at the exclusive Starkwater girl's boarding school for the summer. Needing to improve her French (no, it's not that kind of film), she joins the other ne'er-do-wells and academically ungifted students who weren't allowed to go home for the holidays. Turning up in a particularly nasty looking Grandma dress, she is given short shrift by the school's top bitches Temba (Krista Errickson) and Lauren (Deena Freeman – who was 28 when she made this!), who warns her, “I'd stay out of Temba's way, she doesn't mix with goaty people.” (eh?). Thankfully, despite her dress sense, some of the other girls are a little more friendly, including Cally (Renée Jones - who later appeared in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6: JASON LIVES (1986)) and Marie (an early role for star-to-be Ally Sheedy).
Stephanie soon meets the formidable headmistress, Miss Wade (Donna Reed), who warns the girls that they must not mix with the townspeople or the boys from the nearby school. Soon afterwards, some of the girls head out for an early morning swim (in what looks like a dead ringer for the lake in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)) only to find Temba sleeping face down with the fishes.
Everyone thinks that the girl's death was a tragic accident, but the new detective in town, Kemper (Larry Wilcox - from CHIPS), suspects otherwise. Soon another girl that Stephanie has an argument with turns ups dead and clearly murdered. Panic breaks out at the school as the students and teachers wonder if any of them will make it to September ...
DEADLY LESSONS could have been a lot more fun than it turned out. On the Holy Grail list of many fans of early 80s slashers (this has never been released on DVD or VHS and has barely been seen since its TV debut 25 years ago). However, anyone who's chased a slasher Holy Grail will know that often the fun is in the chase, and once tracked down the film itself can prove disappointing. Not that DEADLY LESSONS is a bad film; it's well made in that bland way that TV movies often are. And that's the problem, there nothing any stronger here than you might find in, say, MURDER SHE WROTE. That wouldn't be a problem if the the missing ingredients (blood, t&a and even knives – it's so mild that they don't even have knives and there's only one small dribble of blood!), were replaced with more than lengthy exposition and soap opera padding until the next ad break.
The soap opera like scenes that make up the first half of the movie are at least broken up with some amusing red herrings. The film has the de-rigeur creepy gardener, Hartigan (Donald Hotton), who makes a great play of cleaning the mud off his boots in front of the girls just before Temba's body is found (and then it seems like everyone has muddy boots for no reason!).
Again, betraying its small screen roots all the murders are off-screen and there's not any stalking (let alone slashing) in the first half. Thankfully, things pick up in the last half. The makers of DEADLY LESSONS raid the slasher movie box for ideas and gleefully employ some clichés, such a character saying to someone the audience can't see, “Ooh, it's you!” (before being attacked). There's also a couple of good suspense scenes near the end, and one good five minute chase from the stables and around the school's seemingly deserted dorms between the final girl and the killer.
Other soon-to-be-famous faces on show here include Nancy Cartwright as the donut scoffing student Libby (who famously went on to voice Bart Simpson), as well as Bill Paxton as the stable boy and Stephanie's romantic interest (he appeared in two other slashers this year, NIGHT WARNING and the mega-cheesy MORTUARY). Donna Reed (who is probably best remembered for the classic Christmas feel good movie, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), criticised DEADLY LESSONS as being sleazy (she clearly hadn't seen some other slasher flicks!), and seems embarrassed by the cringe-worthy romantic sub-plot she (and we) have to endure.
This is strictly PG-rated stuff, but it might be worth a look (if you can find it) for all you slasher completests out there.
BODYCOUNT 3 female:3 / male:01) Female found drowned