Some horror movies settings are eternal: a hospital, an old hotel, a cabin in the woods. Then there are some you just don’t see anymore–say, a boarding school, for instance. Once it became frowned upon to publicly admit that you had neither the time nor inclination to raise your children yourself, boarding schools fell out of favor, and to see them as a modern setting in any movie now, let alone horror, is almost quaint. Back in the early 80s, though, when filmmakers were trying for the next Suspiria, it was still a hot property, and it’s where 1983’s Deadly Lessons, a TV movie so lacking in any real thrills or chills that it could have been cut down to 45 minutes and shown as an Afterschool Special, takes place.
The boarding school here is called Starkwater Hall, an all-girls academy located somewhere in California. Scholarship student Stephanie (Diane Franklin) arrives for her first day, and we know immediately that she’s the heroine, because she’s dressed, despite the California summer heat, in a prairie dress with a turtleneck collar. Things are off to a sour start literally within a minute after she steps out of a cab, when a snobby classmate, improbably named Tember (Krista Errickson), asks “Are you here to deliver something?” while her toady (Deena Freeman) hisses “I’d stay out of Tember’s way if I were you, she doesn’t mix with grody people.”
Stephanie gets a somewhat warmer reception from Marita (Ally Sheedy) and Calli (Renee Jones), and it’s barely ten minutes into the movie before the audience is already neatly filling in spaces on a slasher movie bingo card: the sweetly naive heroine, her bitchy (and of course, implied as slutty) nemesis, a couple of spunky sidekicks, an enormous school that only seems to have a dozen students (most of whom look like they’re long out of high school), an overly sophisticated classmate who walks around in her underwear and has a taste for older men, and not one, not two, but three red herrings, including a creepy janitor, a shady horse riding instructor, and Eddie, a handsome stablehand played by none other than Bill Paxton.
Turns out that bitchy nemesis doesn’t last very long, though–after sneaking out of Starkwater (which seems to be operating as a sort of fancy jail, where the girls aren’t allowed outside the building after dinner), Tember is found dead (as stated in a great line reading by Calli, who shrieks “AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! It’s Tember! She’s dead!”). When Detective Russ Kemper (Larry Wilcox) arrives to investigate Tember’s death, Starkwater’s icy cold headmistress, Miss Wade (Donna Reed, with a bubble hairdo that makes her look like a member of President Skroob’s troops in Spaceballs), tells him she doesn’t want it in the papers because it would look bad for “the finest girls’ school in America” (I believe Eastland School would like to have a word with you, madam). The other girls don’t seem to get even an hour off from classes to process the news, and business proceeds as normal.
Miffed by Miss Wade’s chilly indifference to the loss of one of her students, Detective Kemper continues to look into Tember’s demise, even though it’s written off as an accident. Miss Wade has more than the school’s reputation to protect, as it turns out–she’s also having an affair with the school’s riding instructor, Mr. Farrar (David Ackroyd), in a subplot that goes nowhere and adds nothing to the overall proceedings. Watching the two of them play out their scandalous forbidden romance is like watching someone attempt to strike a crumbling match against a sodden box.
When another student turns up clearly murdered, Miss Wade still insists that the press not get word of it, and the school continues as though nothing has happened. Stephanie and her pals set about trying to solve the crime on their own, while Stephanie’s roommate, Shama (Vicki Kriegler), who carries on as if she’s in an episode of Dynasty, thinks it’s just the living end that her classmates seem to be dying off one by one. Perhaps she should have taken things more seriously, because Shama, whose fate was telegraphed the minute she appears on screen, also ends up dead, strangled with her own scarf. Though Miss Wade still refuses press coverage (as we’re reminded, for roughly the ninth time or so, about the mysterious “clout” she has over the entire town), she does eventually agree to start letting the remaining girls go home. Because most of the girls have rich, neglectful parents who can’t let a little thing like a string of unsolved murders at their daughters’ school get in the way of an investors meeting or jet setting on the Riviera, they still have to hang around the now multiple crime scene a couple days longer.
That’s okay, though, because the girls all seem remarkably laid back about it too, mocking a teacher’s fear that she might be next and pointedly ignoring instructions to travel in groups. Even Stephanie keeps going off on her own, either to help Detective Kemper with the case (by what seems to be planting evidence for some unknown reason, it’s never made clear) or to make eyes at noble townie Eddie, who is initially suspected to be the killer. Marita and Calli sneak out in the dead of night to hijack a rowboat, not to flee for their lives, but because, as Marita points out, “This is our last chance to see the boys until the fall semester!” You know, there’s just a serial killer on the loose, no big deal.
Their nonchalance about the whole thing eventually catches up with them, though, as Calli is attacked right in her dorm room (in classic “Oh, it’s you, I thought you were–gasp!” style) and Marita is kidnapped. This is where the previously mentioned creepy janitor, Mr. Hartigan (Donald Hotton), after more than an hour of just wordlessly skulking around the school, finally comes in–obsessed with Marita’s mother, a former student, he takes it upon himself to “protect” Marita from the wicked ways of the other girls at the school.
Though he isn’t quite a red herring, because he definitely kidnaps someone with harmful intent, with nearly fifteen minutes to go of course Mr. Hartigan isn’t the real killer. That turns out to be…Detective Kemper?!? Yes, it’s true–thanks to the Fallacy of the Talking Killer (copyright Roger Ebert, god rest his soul), we learn that Detective Kemper is the illegitimate son Miss Wade gave up for adoption (after her family shamed his father into committing suicide, no less). Inspired by Tember’s death, which really was an accident, he decides to humiliate Miss Wade by killing off the student body of her prestigious school.
In case you were busy getting a snack, or working on the TV Guide crossword puzzle, after Kemper’s monologue Stephanie asks “Miss Wade is your mother? You did this all for revenge?” To his credit, Kemper does not respond with “Are you kidding me? I just told you.”
As is usually the case in revenge driven horror movies, Kemper’s motive doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (how did he just happen to be assigned to a case at Miss Wade’s school?), and, in this case, is considerably more complicated than it needs to be. Miss Wade is such an appearances obsessed stiff that being seen with a wrinkle in her pantyhose would be embarrassing enough. Nevertheless, Kemper, having made his muddled point, gives up quietly, and Stephanie is eventually able to leave Starkwater, though, hilariously, a violent encounter with a confessed serial killer is still not enough to warrant her parents coming to get her–she’s forced to take a taxi by herself to the airport.
Deadly Lessons tries to marry a slasher movie (well, “strangle movie” would be more accurate here), with a soap opera and even a bit of family drama, and much of it doesn’t really work. Kemper’s motive is still more believable than the idea that a woman whose sole contribution to a town is running (not owning, merely running) a private, isolated school for rich kids would have enough pull to keep the local press from reporting on the deaths of three young women, let alone that nobody’s parents seem to be doing anything to remove them from harm’s way as quickly as possible. The blasé attitude most of the girls demonstrate towards the loss of human life worked to much better effect in River’s Edge, but here just seems weird and misplaced. It’s pointedly obvious that the poor little rich girls of Starkwater have been all but abandoned by their families, but it doesn’t really explain why Shama greets the news about the murder of a classmate by tossing her hair and snapping “Well, nobody liked her anyway.”
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a “girls in trouble” movie, but one without the stuff that compels most people to watch them, it’s not the worst way to pass an hour and a half. If nothing else, the campy acting (ridiculous hairdo and total lack of chemistry with her romantic lead aside, Donna Reed really lends this movie much more gravitas then it deserves) and melodramatic music cues make it worthy of an MST3K treatment. As far as horror goes, it’s about as scary as a basket of kittens. As far as made for TV cheese, however, it earns a solid B.
Original airdate: March 7, 1983
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