Hell High Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: July 19, 2022
Audio: English LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 83:41
Director: Douglas Grossman
When high school football hero Jon-Jon (Christopher Cousins) quits the team, he winds up falling in with a group of outcasts led by the sadistic Dickens (Christopher Stryker). With a willing new recruit in tow, the gang’s youthful hijinks soon spiral into a night of abject horror when they decide to play a cruel prank on the home of their teacher Miss Storm (Maureen Mooney) – who, unbeknownst to the youngsters, harbors a dark and tormented past. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Often described as a slasher film, Douglas Grossman’s Hell High (aka: Raging Fury and Real Trouble; shot in 1986, released in 1989) is really a consolidation of several overlapping B-movie genres – slasher, coming-of-age comedy, home invasion, and rape/revenge (including one of the most awkward attempted rape scenes I’ve ever seen). It hedges its bets by combining tropes, which, in retrospect at least, helps it to stand out in a crowd of low-budget horror films released towards the end of the original slasher boom, before Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) changed the game for teen-based horror. Hell High is a deceptively strange movie spiked with hyperbolic performances, surprisingly graphic violence, and, as its mixed genre approach may have indicated, an incredibly messy tone that fluctuates between hysterical melodrama, shocking horror, and sleazy teen sex comedy. Had any single one of these elements been missing, I can’t imagine it would’ve developed any kind of cult following.
Hell High also occupies a liminal space between purposefully junkie, Troma-like entertainment value and genuinely thoughtful filmmaking. It looks sharper and pricier than Grossman and co-writer Leo Evans’ scattershot script probably deserves, and the performances are significantly better than the cartoony dialogue demands. Well, most of the performances – Maureen Mooney brings every ounce of her delirious soap opera training to the table as the neurotic, Quaalude-addled victim of a cruel teen prank. She’s perfect, in other words. The violence, though infrequent, is creatively gruesome and well-staged, such as the opening flashback, where a couple is impaled on metal fencing after being thrown from a motorcycle or a bit during the climax where the formally cackling comic relief has a pencil crammed into his temple. The real all-star, though, is cinematographer Steven Fierberg, whose dynamic angles and comic book lighting schemes give the film its offbeat and expensive-looking flavor.
The next year, 1990, Fierberg directed the straight-to-video horror movie Voodoo Dawn, starring Tony Todd and Gina Gershon. He also acted as cinematographer on Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) and 25 episodes of Entourage (2004-’06). Grossman, on the other hand, never directed another film and his only other IMDb credit is co-writer of Robert Butler’s raunchy comedy Up the Creek (1984), which is, interestingly enough, very similar to a slasher movie, just without the slashing. Hell High was also Evans and Mooney’s only theatrical feature credit. Actor Christopher Stryker may have had a longer career, but he passed away in 1987 and the long-shelved movie wasn’t released for another two years after.
Hell High was initially released on North American VHS via Prism in 1989, then made its DVD debut in 2004 from Media Blasters (it was also included in MB’s High School Horrors triple-feature collection). That disc featured a 1.66:1, anamorphic transfer and a number of extras that are also present on this new Blu-ray. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was scanned in 2K from the original camera negative and the restoration was supervised by Fierberg. Again, Hell High doesn’t have the biggest cult following, so it is a bit of a surprise that this is such a top-tier transfer. Detail is tight, but not at the risk of the delicate shallow focus, and clarity is excellent without smoothing out natural fine grain. Print damage is minimal, to the point that the only things really aging the footage are a few vertical lines and some delightfully outmoded fashion choices. The eclectic and plush palette is vivid and neatly separated, aside from some minor bleeding from the richest reds into white and neutral hues. Some of the darkest sequences, especially those shot outdoors, exhibit a bit of crush and some snowy noise, but I suspect the film looked generally the same when released in theaters.
Hell High is presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original stereo sound. The whole mix, though quite clean and crisp, has the sound quality of something that was initially designed for mono, but changed to stereo following a stint on the shelf, waiting for release. Basic sound effects and dialogue are flat and simple, while music and moody library effects fill the stereo channels. Rich Macar & Christopher Hyams-Hart’s often inappropriately danceable, Carpenter-esque synth score is a major highlight and one of the elements that gives away the film’s true age, since it and the accompanying pop-rock tunes (performed by Jon Shannon & Shawn Thompson and The Elegants) sound categorically 1986, not 1989.
New, exclusive extras:
Commentary with director/producer/co-writer Douglas Grossman and cinematographer Steven Fierberg – The first commentary is a brand new collaboration between the director and cinematographer, in which they praise the cast & crew, discuss their inspirations, break down technical practices and struggles (with emphasis on the photography), and generally enjoy revisiting the film.
School’s Out (42:55, HD) – Grossman recalls growing up loving movies, his early work behind-the-scenes, writing Hell High, raising money to make the film independently, building the film around exploitation elements he knew would sell, casting, shooting on location, creating a photo storyboard, collaborating with the composers, brief struggles with the MPAA, and release/marketing. There’s some overlap with the commentary, as Grossman himself acknowledges.
A Beautiful Nightmare (28:56, HD) – Steven Fierberg reflects on his training and career as a photographer and cinematographer, his process on Hell High, and how those experiences compare to his current career in television.
Jon-Jon’s Journey (18:49, HD) – Actor Christopher Cousins, now relatively famous for his work on shows like Breaking Bad (2009-’12), talks about taking the Hell High audition because of casting director Louis DiGiaimo’s pedigree, shooting the film, behind-the-scenes hijinks, and Christopher Stryker’s untimely death.
The More the Better (20:06, HD) – Actress Maureen Mooney also recalls her larger career, the professional and supportive atmosphere on set helping her through Hell High’s traumatic sequences, her acting process, and becoming pregnant during a long break in production.
Music Is Not Sound (26:48) – Composers Rich Macar & Christopher Hyams-Hart reunite to chat about their careers, their hardware, combining sound effects and music, and strange choices made during the mixing.
Back to Schools: The Locations of Hell High (13:07, HD) – A then-and-now location tour with the author of Frightfest Guide to Monster Movies (FAB, 2017) and co-writer of Derek Wan’s Shadow: Dead Riot (2006), Michael Gingold.
Deleted scene (2:10, HD, no audio)
Alternate Hell High opening title (2:05, HD)
Archive extras from the Media Blasters DVD:
Commentary with director/producer/co-writer Douglas Grossman – The old Media Blasters tracks begin with Grossman solo. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between this, the new track, and the two director interviews on this disc, but it’s still nice to have a complete set of commentaries available.
Commentary with Joe Bob Briggs – The second Media Blasters holdover features critic, historian, and the cult personality, aka: John Irving Bloom, who has been a vocal supporter of Hell High for some time. Joe Bob offers up a typically informative and celebrative track that contextualizes the film among other period horrors and fills in the behind-the-scenes backstory.
Introduction by Joe Bob Briggs (5:06, SD)
Douglas Grossman interview (19:30, SD)
Co-writer Leo Evans interview (11:41, SD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.