Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Glutton for Punishment: STUDENT BODIES

by JB
Given that this 1981 parody of slasher films is literally filled with giant garbage bags, I feel safe in saying that this film, too, is a mixed bag.

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.
Writer/Director Mickey Rose went to high school with Woody Allen and contributed to Allen’s stand-up act in the early 1960s. Allen was the best man at Rose’s wedding, and the two men collaborated on the scripts for What’s Up, Tiger Lily; Take the Money and Run; and Bananas. Rose later wrote for Johnny Carson, Sid Caesar, the Smothers Brothers, and Dean Martin. Student Bodies is his sole directing credit.

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.
The Plot in Brief: Someone from Lamab High School is murdering young women violently and stuffing their boyfriends into trash bags. Because seemingly everyone in the school wears heavy black galoshes and green latex gloves, the killer could be almost anyone. Is it odd and virginal high-school Senior Toby Badger (Kristen Riter)? Is it Malvert, the odd janitor (Patrick Boone Varnell)? Is it odd Principal Peters (Joe Talarowski) Is it odd school psychologist Dr. Sigmund (Carl Jacobs)? Is it very odd wood shop teacher Mr. Dumpkin (Joe Flood)? What if it’s all an odd dream?

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.
But a surprising number of the gags land. Female lead Kristin Riter is really good and up for anything the film throws at her; it’s too bad she never made another film. Student Bodies parodies the trope of sexually-active teenagers becoming victims by running through a seeming parade of painfully horny boyfriends. (“I can’t help it,” one of them admits at the beginning of the film, “Funerals get me hot.”) Final Girl Riter is halfway through changing for gym class when she the mysterious killer chases her through the school basement; though the chase is long with many stops and starts, Riter never manages to actually put on her shirt. A frugal Mom seems much more upset about the 75 cents an hour that she is paying a babysitter than that babysitter’s violent death.

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.
Should you watch Student Bodies today for Junesploitation? Hey, I can’t live your life for you. I can simply report that I found myself laughing a lot when I recently sat down and re-watched this film for the first time in almost thirty years. Your mileage may vary. There is quite a bit of slashing, so it works! It could also be an appropriate pick for the 19th (‘80s Horror), the 23rd (Teenagers), the 30th (‘80s Comedy) or any of the Free Space days.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I think I got JB's DVD copy of "Friday the 13th" when the site did a physical media giveaway a few years back. I still own it, even though I've moved on to a Blu-ray copy when rewatching the original "Friday."

    The same way "The Oscar" is responsible for no movies after '68 being able to license the statuette's likeness, I'm convinced "Student Bodies" is responsible for the MPAA not letting its ratings trademarks be available for in-movie content because of THIS SCENE. The first time me and a friend watched this movie in college we had to pause it for 5 minutes after this joke because we were literally on the floor laughing so hard we were about to pass out. No repeat viewings since have matched that, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for "Student Bodies" because of that scene. :-)

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    1. One of the better jokes in the movie, though it’s no “horse head bookend!”

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  2. One of my favorites. Definitely some things don't work in the movie, but the ones that do are great. So many conditioned response quotes of mine come from this movie. Anytime Lauren and I see eggplant on a menu, I'll say "Eggplant, you hate eggplant", and while she does, I assume she is the only one around that knows what I'm talking about. Also can't tell you how many times I've said "Click" to end a phone call. Glad to see some movie love for this classic.

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