It is no secret around the palatial F This Movie! offices that I am no fan of the original Friday the 13th from 1978. You can read that column here. This is the column that kept getting comments, both for and against, years after I wrote it.
It is also no secret that I am the only F This Movie! staff member who can remember seeing the comic send-up Student Bodies, in a theater, in 1981. I am old. Back then, I was just 19 years old. I had just finished my freshman year of college. My roommate thought the “horse head bookends!” stuff was the funniest thing he had ever seen. More on that later.
INTERESTING PRODUCTION HISTORY RUMOR: Supposedly Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Bad News Bears, and Smile) was hired by the money men to serve as a “back-up director” should first-timer Rose prove not up to the task. Rumor has it that Ritchie never had to step in, but was unhappy enough with the finished film to have his producer credit changed to Allen Smithee.
Although ostensibly a parody of slasher films, Student Bodies owes a lot to the previous year’s Airplane! with its Mad magazine vibe and onslaught of jokes. Both Airplane! and Student Bodies all but shout at their audiences, “Don’t like that joke? Here are ten more.” Admittedly, Airplane! has the better average of good jokes to bad, but considering that Student Bodies is almost 40 years old, a surprising number of its gags still produce laughs.
Plenty of stuff in the movie doesn’t work: The “Body Count” and “Clue” subtitles flashing on the screen wear out their welcomes quickly. The all-amateur cast performs in what could be an educational film about the importance of timing in a comedy (and how deadly it can be when that timing is off). A late-in-the-film tip-of-the-hat to The Wizard of Oz seems stolen outright from 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie. Oftentimes, the film is so interested in gags over narrative that all sense of story sense will be thrown out the window to fit in one last reference to Carrie.
The best joke in the film (and I suspect the filmmakers knew it) involves the wood shop teacher Mr. Dumpkin. Dumpkin is obsessed with horse head bookends. It is the only wood shop project his students ever work on. Actually, to say Dumpkin is obsessed with horse head bookends is an understatement. At one point in the film, an HHB is used as a murder weapon, yet stroking one is the only thing that can calm the high-strung Dumpkin. This is the one joke in the film that gets funnier with each repetition. Because I saw this in college with my roommate, I got to be there at the very beginning of what would become one of his favorite jokes of all time: randomly shouting “Horse head bookends? Horse head bookends!” for no reason whatsoever over the course of the next 39 years.
Maybe the film doesn’t date exceptionally well. Maybe the film isn’t the funniest. Maybe the authentic ‘80s fashions are no longer fashionable. You know what IS the funniest and will never go out of style?
Horse head bookends.