Countdown to Murder – Rediscovering ‘Graduation Day’ (US 1981 – 96 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - October 14, 2014
Countdown to Murder – Rediscovering ‘Graduation Day’ (US 1981 – 96 mins)

1981 was a prolific year for the slasher movie. Some well-known titles included ‘The Prowler’, ‘Final Exam’ ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ and ‘The Burning’. Another title released that year was ‘Graduation Day’, a formulaic High School horror, but while it’s no piece of art, it does what it sets out to do.

At Midvale High, aspiring athlete Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) collapses and dies from a heart attack after finishing a 30 second sprint. Soon afterwards, a tracksuit wearing killer with a stopwatch begins slaying her friends on the school track team one by one. Is the killer the bad-tempered athletics coach Michaels (Christopher George), Laura’s sister Anne (Patch Mackenzie) who’s returned home for the funeral, Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), or somebody unknown?

Like most 80’s slasher movies ‘Graduation Day’ is rather meandering at times. The cast of seasoned pros and aspiring stars is ok, with only the local bumbling dope-smoking cop a real cliché. A star of a number of grade A westerns; Christopher George is his usual serious self, hamming it up wonderfully. George would star in the more controversial horror movie ‘Pieces’ the following year, before his untimely death in 1983, aged just 52. As Laura’s older sister, Patch Mackenzie makes an impression but sadly her role didn’t come to very much. Future Scream Queen Linnea Quigley has an early role as one of the victims, as does future ‘Wheel of Fortune’ hostess Vanna White. Prolific character actor Michael Pataki turns up as the harassed school principal, with E.J Peaker in a comical role as his ditzy secretary.

This was writer-director Herb Freed’s best known movie, and he directs with a degree of imagination, incorporating jump-cuts and subliminal shots into the mild proceedings. Freed had earlier made the atmospheric horror ‘Haunts’ (’77) with Cameron Mitchell, and later the entertaining sex comedy ‘Tomboy’ (’85), starring Betsy Russell.

The murders are pretty standard stuff with the usual slicing’s, stabbings and a dodgy-looking decapitation. The final half hour does liven up a bit when the murderer is revealed and manages to fool the police into blaming somebody else, leaving them free to go on to more potential carnage. There is also a nice touch at the end with a Psycho inspired ‘corpse-in-a-chair’ scene, which I found quite impressive.

‘Graduation Day’ is not a great film by any means, it’s not even a very good one, but I think it’s a piece of trashy entertainment, ideal for a late night nostalgic viewing. There aren’t many scares here, but the climax is fun and the acting by most of the cast is pretty good. I’d never recommend this movie, but as a campus camp-fest, it just about makes the grade.

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