[review by JA Kerswell]
|"I haven't seen Urban Legend. Honest!". There's someone in the back seat in German slasher SCHOOL'S OUT.
SCHOOL’S OUT got a rare US English dub release for a European slasher by Fangoria video way back in late 2000. This made-for-TV German slasher was obviously inspired by the then-current popularity of Stateside slashers - with its translated original title being the cheeky SCREAM - BECAUSE I WILL KILL YOU!. A group of teens break away from a graduation party at their school to leave pranks for their teachers, only to find themselves hunted by a killer dressed in a Harlequin outfit and armed with a giant pair of scissors. The film was followed by a direct sequel in 2001 - with a killer nun - that has, so far, never had an English-language release.
Whereas Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s SCREAM (1996) references slasher movie tropes from the 1980s, SCHOOL’S OUT opens with a purposeful megamix of SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997). Jessica (Sandra S. Leonhard) is on the way to the graduation party driving her father’s taxi cab. During a storm, she sees a broken-down car in the road and stops to see if they need help. She is spooked by a man in a rain slicker, whose face is obscured and leaves without opening the door to him. However, the man calls the number on the side of the taxi and starts to flirt with her by asking: “You like horror flicks?” (!). Despite his creepy voice and general serial killer demeanour she agrees to go back and pick him up when he invites her to dinner (!!).
Meanwhile, at the school, the storm rages on, and Nina (Katharina Wackernagel) waits for Jessica to arrive. She laments to her friend Anne (Marlène Meyer-Dunker) that things will never be the same now that school is ending - and also mopes about her ex-boyfriend Tom (Nils Nelleßen). One of them calls Nina and Tom: “School’s big tragic couple.” Nina notices Jessica’s taxi outside and goes to greet her, but - when she sees the car rocking side to side - she presumes her friend has gotten lucky and leaves her to it. Meanwhile, on the TV and radio, reports are coming through about an escaped lunatic who had killed four women 11 years previously with a pair of giant scissors and police warn may be returning to the vicinity.
|A killer jester is loose at the graduation party and ready to snip some teens down to size in SCHOOL'S OUT.
Despite this news, Tom and his best friend Philip (Niels-Bruno Schmidt) persuade a small group to leave the graduation party and go deep into the school. They have a plan to play pranks on the teachers as a leaving present - which includes live tarantulas scattered about and filling an English class full of creepy Harlequin costumes sitting in chairs. They use a giant pair of scissors to cut the ties around the box containing the tarantulas and leave it outside for any Tom, Dick or Psycho to find. And, sure enough, someone in black leather gloves reaches into shot to take them. Also, a Harlequin costume has gone missing from the classroom and the students are soon fighting for their lives against a mad killer intent on making sure they never graduate …
Once it gets going, SCHOOL’S OUT has fun mixing the inherent glorious ridiculousness of the North American teen slasher and no-nonsense German practicality. Nina is earmarked from the beginning as Final Girl material. She is dogged in her pursuit of the truth even when no one else believes her. Again following the template set by SCREAM and the films that followed, Wackernagel was a big TV star and was dubbed the German Neve Campbell or Jennifer Love Hewitt. The school setting is a gothic castle, which gives the film some retro vibes. And it might well be the lone learning establishment that features a room full of taxidermied animals (where a dead swordfish provides an unusual demise for one character) as well as the inexplicable collection of dolls and Harlequin costumes. The actors are clearly having fun with it all, although the film flunks the chance to have a chase scene between the one character on rollerblades and the killer.
Director Robert Sigl and screenwriter Kai Meyer (a self-confessed fan of 70s and 80s slasher movies) cleverly subvert expectations by making SCHOOL’S OUT something of a two-act drama. The graduation party is the first of two sections where the principal characters face down the killer. Both take place at the school where bizarrely a group of students decide to hold another party mere days after the brutal murders of a number of their classmates. At least the survivors of that night have an excuse as they are returning to hunt for a clue to the identity of the Harlequin-suited psycho. This, and the black gloves the killer wears, knowingly nods to the conventions of the classic Italian thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s. Meyer even referred to SCHOOL’S OUT as a “teen giallo” - and the killer’s modus operandi brings to mind Carlo Vanzina’s NOTHING UNDERNEATH (1985). Intriguingly the killer’s outfit suggests the original literary purpose of the Harlequin as a figure who guides the souls of the dead to hell - although Meyer’s allusions to the darkness contained in classic fairy tales are largely lost in the final cut of the movie.
|Katharina Wackernagel (as Nina) was famous on TV and was dubbed at the time the German Neve Campbell. Perfect casting for Robert Sigl's teen slasher born from the success of Wes Craven's SCREAM.
The film flips things around again and seals its post-modernist roots with the revelation of who was holding the deadly scissors - which once again shows that Sigl and Meyer were paying close attention to what was happening Stateside. I won’t spoil things, but the killer’s motive is one for the ages and is pleasingly ludicrous. The opening scene - where a figure appears in the backseat of a car - also appears very reminiscent of URBAN LEGEND (1998) - but Meyer recalled that was completely unintentional and was worried that he would be accused of ripping that film off when he saw coverage of Jamie Blanks’ movie in Fangoria whilst they were filming SCHOOL’S OUT.
As well as its contribution to the post-SCREAM slasher cycle - including ANATOMY (2000), ANATOMY 2 (2003), FLASHBACK (2000) and THE POOL (2001) - Germany, of course, had a rich heritage of Krimi films. These Edgar Wallace adaptations (which were popular between the late 1950s and early 1970s) were forerunners to the giallo and often featured psychos in outlandish costumes that killed victims in bizarre ways - often in gothic settings. Some of these had definite proto-slasher vibes including ZIMMER 13 (1963) and THE PHANTOM OF SOHO (1964). German TV audiences in 1999 would have still been well-versed in these movies and the spirit lingers in SCHOOL’S OUT - especially the way it subverts the role of the police by making the main detective particularly useless. Although, of course, the overriding inspiration remains North American teen slashers of the time.
Robert Sigl had made his name with the award-winning German horror movie LAURIN (1989). Despite being shot on 16mm film, SCHOOL’S OUT was a co-production with German TV broadcaster RTL (then Europe’s biggest TV network). Presumably with an eye on foreign distribution, the film had a $1.3 million budget. Filmed around Cologne, with Schaumburg Castle providing the backdrop for the school. Not devoid of gore in its original version, SCHOOL’S OUT was shown on German TV with around two minutes’ worth of cuts (the network cannily ordered two versions of the movie). Even in its cut version, the film’s release caused a scandal in Germany after a student killed his teacher on the day it was shown (the fact that the murder happened in the morning before it was broadcast seemed not to matter). Despite this, it was one of the best-rated TV movies of the year and led to the direct 2001 sequel - where a killer nun takes over from the Harlequin - whose title directly translates as THE GIRLS’ BOARDING SCHOOL - NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS.
SCHOOL’S OUT overcomes some pacing issues in its first half to become a fun addition to the post-SCREAM slasher sweepstakes and richly deserves an upgrade.
female: 5 / male: 3
1) Female killed (off screen)
2) Female stabbed with scissors
3) Female stabbed with scissors
4) Female killed by blocked tracheotomy wound
5) Male imapled on swordfish
6) Male shot
7) Female shot
8) Male stabbed in the stomach
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