GIRL SCHOOL SCREAMERS
Director: John P. Finnegan
Year of release: 1986
Country of origin: USA
Running time: 80 minutes
DVD/Blu ray: DVD only
Also known as: The Portrait
Tagline: "The finishing school that is finishing them off" and "How much gut wrenching fright can you stand"?.
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: After the death of an eccentric millionaire the local Catholic school for girls are delighted to discover that the deceased has left them the valuable contents of his estate in his will. Brimming with an array of antiques and paintings the estate is a hot commodity with the school being free to keep or sell on the items as they wish. The school dispatch elderly nun Sister Urban and seven of the top performing students to the mansion known as the Welles Estate to catalogue, value and take inventory of their new possessions It turns out however that the Welles Estate has something of a dark past with a tragic death occurring on site some forty years ago. In the time since the place has built up a reputation of being a bit of a spook house. After learning of this one of girls involved in the inventory by name of Jackie is troubled to discover that she herself is a dead ringer for the girl that met her end at the estate years ago. After Sister Urban takes ill and is confined to her bed the girls find themselves in danger as they begin to be whittled down by a mysterious force connected to the dark past of the house.
Good points: The music shines through in this one and is easily one of the best things about it. Though the film itself comes across as very low budget and shoddy the music is accomplished most of the time throughout and helps establish an eerie atmosphere.
The Welles Estate and grounds is an excellent location for the action and is decadent and immaculately furnished inside. It definitely gives off the right impression that it could be the home of an old fashioned aristocrat who collected a lot of valuable trinkets and pieces of artwork in his lifetime. Along with the music the house really helps set up a creepy mood and atmosphere.
I liked the opening of the film with the young boy being dared to go into the house and then encountering the ghost with the weird face on the stairway. It was cheesy and didn't make much sense really at the end when we come to learn more about the history of the place but nevertheless it made for a fun opening. I also felt that the flashback scenes between Jennifer and Tyler that occurred when Jackie was reading the diary were well done.
Though I didn't feel that the girls or the couple of boys that appeared later made much of an impression I really liked the character of the old nun Sister Urban. It was a bit unrealistic that she was there as I'll touch on shortly but she played her role very well and was for me the most likeable character. Though he was only in it briefly I also liked the doctor Robert Fisher. I liked the older characters in another Troma film Splatter University as well so though they may not be the most accomplished film makers it seems they know how to craft a good elderly person character.
Bad Points: Being a hybrid between a slasher and a kind of a ghost story of sorts it means that we don't get a look at our killer until almost the very end. Although some of the kills take place in a more traditional slasher manner with us just not seeing who does it others are either off camera or the act of a more supernatural force so again we don't see the assailant. As such there is no figure to see as the bad guy (well up until the very end anyway) and it isn't as if it is a Scream style slasher either where we have to try and guess the identity of the killer. So this lack of a proper bad guy rendered it less enjoyable for me plus on top of that I found the cover art to be misleading. I was expecting the killer to be the thing that appears on that with the rotten wormy face (reminds me of a slice of pizza at a glance) but as it turned out we only saw that face like once in the entire film. As Hudson Lee pointed out in his review we also don't see anything of the bald guy with the black gloves who also appears on the more modern artwork. Quite who this rotund fellow is remains a mystery.
When the girls start to get killed off I thought the film was rather a letdown and not really worth the quite lengthy wait it took to reach this point. The deaths just didn't do it for me as although the different methods used were okay we didn't see enough of what was happening. I've read elsewhere that some seem to consider the kills a strong point but for me they were mostly forgettable and lackluster. There was very little gore either and for a couple of the girls, Adel and the one grabbed near the water we didn't even see what happened to them. On the subject of this victim by the water she saw two girls sitting in a boat just prior to being attacked but we only saw this for a split second so didn't get a proper look. It was very unclear as to who these girls were supposed to be. Possibly the ghosts of two of her friends that had just been killed though if so I don't see why they would be in a boat. It was just confusing and poorly put together. They also weren't consistent with the makeup/special effects for one of the victims when her corpse turned up again near the end.
I thought that the way the girl with the short hair acted near the start when playing hide and seek was very cringeworthy and frankly just embarrassing.
There were a few little plot holes as well which dragged the whole thing down further. Firstly we never found out what happened to the young boy from the start. We return to him briefly where he is thrashing around in a hospital bed but are shown nothing further of him after that.
Spoilers for the next few points. Why did the ghost of Jennifer scare the young boy into a coma at the start anyway? He was trespassing I know but she seemed like a good person when alive so it seemed out of character.
In another small thing the two males didn't actually try and frighten the girls at all even though that is what they were suppose to be going for or at least that was what Bruce was going for anyway.
Though I liked the Sister Urban character I thought afterward in light of how we learn she is connected to the past of the house that it would be very unlikely that the school headmistress would select her to accompany the girls. You would think she would be the last member of staff they would send. They could have at least included a scene with the headmistress bullying her into going saying for example it would be good for her to go and lay ghosts to rest and finally get over what happened years ago.
Verdict: A lot of people criticise this for being boring with not much happening in the first two thirds until the kills kick in during the final parts. I'm of the opposite opinion though in that I actually preferred the early bits and felt they built up quite an eerie and unsettling atmosphere only for much of the good work to be undone once the murders began. At that point I thought it went downhill fast and deteriorated into a big mess. I found the killer to be a big disappointment as well. Overall this was a letdown for me with the music, setting and atmosphere just about making it worth a watch but most everything else drags it down.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1) Girl with short hair: Killed with a meat cleaver to the mouth.
2) Girl: Hook attached to chain impaled in her back and then she is hoisted up into the air.
3) Girl by water: We see a hand grabbing her ankle. One of the corpses is later seen with a black face which is possibly mud and pond scum so presumably this girl was pulled into the water and drowned.
4) Bruce: Run over by a car.
5) Adel: Killed off camera. Sees something in the car that makes her scream but we see no more. Maybe this girl doesn't even die as I can't recall if she was among the corpses near the end.
6) Blonde girl: Electrocuted and burns up very quickly after touching some sort of light bulb or light bulb cord. Wasn't exactly sure why this killed her as I don't think she had wet hands. Perhaps I missed something.
7) Paul: Killed by pitchfork impaling.
8) Tyler Welles. (Not sure if this one counts seeing that he was dead anyway but his ghost I guess you would call it is killed by Jackie as she is possessed by the spirit of Jennifer. She plucks his eyes out).