Written by Allan Mott
In 1979, Allan Arkush had been working with Roger Corman for several years. He started with his friend, Joe Dante, editing trailers before moving on to direct Hollywood Boulevard in 1976 and the Death Race 2000 sequel (and inevitable future One Too Many subject) Deathsport in 1978. Following that last film, the famed B-movie producer proposed to Arkush that their next collaboration should be a teen movie with lots of soundtrack-ready music called Disco High.
Arkush blanched at the title. He hated disco. He convinced Corman that the then-popular music was a dying fad and that the movie would make a lot more money as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School instead. He pitched it as a return to films like A Hard Day’s Night, Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and Catch Us If You Can, which were all crafted around the popularity of bands like The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits and The Dave Clark Five. And to fill the role of the film’s band he looked to his own record collection and proposed one of the greatest (and ugliest) of all time—The Ramones.
The result was an instant cult classic—an anarchic ode to the joy of youthful rebellion and the tyranny of adult cluelessness wrapped up in a gleefully cartoonish package that presented us with human-sized talking mice, Paul Bartel in a beret and—most bizarrely—the idea that someone as cute as P.J. Soles could honestly believe human scarecrow Joey Ramone was the most desirable man on the planet.
There’s no other film quite like it in cinema, much less Roger Corman’s production history, but that’s not for lack of effort. Twelve years after the release of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the director of a slasher-musical hybrid so ahead of its time that it took decades for it to become a cult classic of its own decided she wanted to make a high school comedy and—knowing how Corman’s mind worked—pitched it to him as a sequel rather than an original work.
In its way Deborah Brock’s Slumber Party Massacre II is as unique a beast as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. It’s the first slasher film to ever be made with an explicitly female point of view (one can read the entire film as a fantasy occurring inside the mind of a young woman traumatized by the events of the first Slumber Party Massacre), and it literalizes many of the genre’s clichés in surreal and postmodern contexts, including a scene where the film’s killer—a rockabilly hoodlum with a drill-equipped guitar—breaks out into a song and dance number in the middle of the movie. It’s a love it or hate it kind of film, and I’m firmly in the love it camp. To the point that (brag alert) an old online essay I wrote about the film ended up being mentioned in the liner notes of Shout Factory’s Slumber Party Massacre trilogy DVD set and Brock herself mentioned me in an interview as someone who caused her to realize how she had been subconsciously inspired by the surrealist masters while making the movie.
That is all to say, she was as good a pick as any to try and resurrect the special cinematic unicorn that is Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and even if she didn’t quite succeed, the result isn’t quite as easy to dismiss as one might assume. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever never hits the heights of its predecessor, but—once you get over the natural inclination to compare them—there’s no denying that it possesses its own unique charms that put it on the same guilty pleasure level of something like 1989’s Teen Witch (which stars Robyn Lively, whose brother, Jason, plays one of the bad guys in RnRHSF).
RnRHSF stars Corey Feldman, a couple of years after his infamous off-screen behaviour sent him from mainstream studio efforts like License to Drive, Dream a Little Dream and The ‘Burbs to the world of Corman pictures. He plays Jessie Davis, the lead singer of The Eradicators—a nominally talented band, whose biggest weakness is they’re fronted by the same dude who gave us this:
Beyond music, though, the group is mostly dedicated to (fairly) harmless mischief. In one scene, they go to a woman’s house and convince her they’re a religious cult willing to pay her to worship the old refrigerator in her basement. In another they flush all the school’s toilets at once in celebration of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Day”, which honours the date in the first film where the students blew up Vince Lombardi High.
Though the film establishes that their school is the one rebuilt in its place, the new building apparently also came with a new name, since it’s now Ronald Reagan High (a joke that might have felt more pointed three years after the end of his administration, but that now falls flat when you can easily imagine dozens of such schools actually existing in each state across the U.S.). But this change makes sense in the context of the film, which embraces the slobs vs. snobs model that the original film eschewed, but which became a standard trope in the teen films of the period.
In this case, The Eradicators’ enemies come in the shape of young Christian Republican students (dubbed the “yuppies”, although their status as such is clearly honorary at this point) and Dr. Vader, played by a returning Mary Woronov. Though Vader is apparently a different person than Miss Togar (the character Woronov played in the first film), her M.O. of enforcing strict discipline with the aid of two moronic assistants is virtually identical.
On Jessie’s side is the mostly ineffectual Principal McGee (M*A*S*H’s Larry Linville apparently taking over the character Paul Bartel played in the first film—a connection I was only able to make thanks to IMDb, since the film fails to spell it out) and the school’s behind-the-scenes puppetmaster, Eaglebauer (Michael Cerveris, who is about as physically different as the original’s Clint Howard as two performers could be), as well as the very young and pretty substitute teacher played by Sarah Buxton (given an “introducing” credit, even though this was at least her seventh film), who serves as Feldman’s love interest in a subplot that would very much prove controversial if the film were made today.
Like the original, RnRHSF largely avoids plot in favour of antics, giving it an episodic feeling whose success ebbs and flows scene by scene. Brock populates the film with appealing performers who manage to make you want to keep watching even when they’re not given a lot to do (in particular Liane Curtis, as The Eradicators’ crush-worthy guitarist and Brynne Horracks as a cute, but deeply eccentric girl who may or may not be a witch). Some scenes feel truly inventive, while other moments seem shamelessly borrowed from other sources (I couldn’t help but notice a Troma influence in the use of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—à la the transformation scene in The Toxic Avenger—and the foaming Alka-Seltzer in the mouth trick that Lloyd Kaufman famously employed throughout his work).
In place of The Ramones, the film gives a half-hearted effort to play up The Pursuit of Happiness, the Canadian band who recorded the film’s title theme (giving it an unexpected #yeg connection via TPoH’s frontman/songwriter Moe Berg). But despite being given a “special appearance by” credit at the end of the film, their actual screen time is limited to us seeing the first low-budget music video for “I’m An Adult Now” playing on a TV screen. That said, it is fun to think about an alternate universe where Berg’s band apparently had a greater cultural impact than Nirvana.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever is the kind of sequel that never really had a chance. Its budget was too low. The original was too unique to be successfully copied (the only film to ever come close being Arkush’s Get Crazy from 1983, which has never been digitally released because apparently the original sound elements have been lost). And it stars a heroin-era Corey Feldman in a performance in which he not only sings, but also delivers many of his lines like he’s imitating Christian Slater in Heathers imitating Jack Nicholson. (Feldman’s thoughts regarding the film somehow didn’t make it into the finished version of Coreyography, his memoir, which I have in fact read.)
But despite this it almost works. While nowhere near as polished as the Hughes films of the era, its shaggy dog charm easily makes it as watchable as License to Drive. At its best it’s actually more reminiscent of the classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off TV rip off “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” (that was famously superior in all ways to the short-lived “Ferris Bueller” sitcom), than Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.
The result is a completely inessential sequel, but one that’s still worth checking out. Just make sure to fast forward whenever Corey starts singing.