With high school graduations coming to a close to herald the summer, we take a look back at the ’80s slasher Graduation Day to see if this milestone event for teens was worthy of releasing a horror movie based on it.
Movie: Graduation Day (1981)
Plot: Two months before her high school graduation, track star Laura Ramstead runs herself to death during a meet. She literally starts dying during a race, wins it, and keels over dead. Now the rest of the team is turning up dead one by one the day before graduation. Whodunnit? Do we care?
Killer: That’s a question I don’t want to answer, since it spoils the mystery that keeps this film afloat, even if that mystery is kept afloat by obvious red herrings. Is the killer Laura’s older sister Anne, on leave from the U.S. Navy to receive Laura’s track and field trophy in memoriam? Is it Laura’s step-father, who Anne believes is concerned with the insurance money attached to Laura’s death? Is it the grieving, harmonica-playing boyfriend? The whip-cracking high school coach? The apple-loving high school principal? Sorry, you’ll have find out on your own. Or ask me reaaaaalllly nicely with an email or social media message. All I can tell you is that the killer wears black gloves and uses a stopwatch to time his kills to the 30 seconds it took Laura to run the race that killed her.
Critique: Sometimes it’s easy to forget what slasher films really are: murder mysteries with a healthy dose of on-screen bloody killing. It’s how these slasher films are shot, the acting, and the background noise and music that turn some of these bloody murder mystery films into real horror films. This is the problem that Graduation Day runs into: it barely even tries to make that jump into horror.
Graduation Day begins with the accidental death of Laura as her team and the crown look on in horror. Fast forward two months, and it’s the eve of graduation for the school, and the members of the track team are being murdered one by one as the film tosses blatantly obvious red herrings at the audience to keep them guessing about who the killer is. But no one knows these students have been killed until the last quarter of the film. Parents and teacher just think the kids are out raising hell like teens will do when they are about to be released from high school, so there’s no dread for the cast that comes with the knowledge that there’s a killer on the loose. Usually a slasher film can deal with unawareness by the characters by injecting, at the very least, an eerie soundtrack into the film so at least the audience feels some tension in the stalking scenes, but Graduation Day doesn’t even give us that. It gives us disco music, the least eerie music in history.
I’m not saying Graduation Day isn’t worth a watch. It may be bad, it may not be so bad that it’s good, but it is at least entertainingly bad. Who knows what it could have been if the producers were clued in that they were supposed to be creating a horror film.
Scene of Awesomeness: The best moment of Graduation Day is the opening scene. You’ve got ’70s era disco pumping, the crowd cheering, and shots of track and field action, everything that a horror film usually doesn’t have. And we end the scene with an Oscar-worthy performance by Ruth Ann Llorens playing Laura as she runs herself to death. I’ve never seen anyone die of a blood clot in their heart as they’re running, and winning a race, but Llorens’s facial expressions are what I would expect. Unfortunately, Graduation Day is all downhill from there.
Scene of Ridiculousness: During the Graduation Eve dace at the high school, the killer, dressed in a fencing suit and wielding a real sword, chases down Linnea Quigley’s character to the music of ’70s new-wave disco band Felony after beheading Tony’s stunt dummy. Usually chase scenes in slashers are tense, but this one is cartoonish due to the music.
Body Count: 9
1 death by running (Awesomely Overkill Award, if only because of the facial expressions)
1 stabbing while running
1 “way too sharp for” fencing sword through the throat
1 spiked football to the stomach
1 off-screen sword chopping
1 pole vault onto a bed of spikes
1 by gunshot
1 push into the dead pole vaulter’s spiked body
2 pairs of breasts
Actors/Actresses of Note: It seems that most of the members of this cast did something before or after Graduation Day. I’m not saying that something was very memorable, but it’s more than some do. Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki) went on to play the role of Dr. Hoffman, the man who let Michael Meyers get away in Halloween 4. Coach Michaels (Christopher George) had some roles in John Wayne movies and the WWII television series Rat Patrol. The bumbling police officer (Virgil Frye) did such a good job that he was promoted to Lieutenant in for Revenge of the Ninja. Linnea Quigley has a small role as she had begun her rise up the rankings to scream queen. And then there is the star of the movie, even if she is only in two scenes pre-hair bleaching and straightening: Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White!
Quote: “Come back here! Don’t think I don’t know who you are, because I do. Come on and show your face, you miserable scum!” – Roberts