Student Bodies

You want to know how old I am? I'm old enough that even my stories about all of the times that I realized I was old are ancient.

For example, about ten years ago Fall Out Boy started to get a lot of press, so I decided to check out one of their cds from the library. (Heh. Cds.) I was almost immediately underwhelmed by what I heard. Before two songs were over I thought "well, this sounds exactly like a lot of rock bands from ten years ago. Who cares?" But then a light bulb went off over my head: oh, this is just popular because it's aimed at teenagers who are too young to know any of the music from ten years ago. And then that lead me to another realization, namely that I, too, had been a dumb kid ten years ago. You see, when I was in middle school I loved all of the Stone Temple Pilot songs that were constantly being played on the radio and I didn't understand why all the college kids hated them - I kept reading about how STP were really derivative but I couldn't hear it. Of course, now things have moved on so much that Stone Temple Pilots is basically a legacy act, Fall Out Boy has already broken up and released a come-back album, and the kids of today have moved onto whatever the new Fall Out Boy is. (Is 30 Seconds to Mars a real thing? I've heard the name but I'm too afraid to investigate.)

Of course, I could tell a similar story with movies I've seen. For example, when Cabin in the Woods came out I thought: oh, this is a movie where the characters are using their knowledge of horror movie tropes to help them survive the horror movie scenario they've found themselves trapped in - so it's basically another version of Scream. And of course I would think that; Scream came out when I was in middle school and Cabin in the Woods came out when I was almost thirty, so Scream was burned into my brain while Cabin in the Woods was just a Johnny-come-lately in my life. However, if I was slightly older I might have thought that both of them were just knock offs of Student Bodies, another meta-horror movie - albeit one from 1981, the year I was born.

To be fair, all three movies are very different in their tone and execution. Cabin in the Woods is far more serious than the other two; underneath all of the surface level scares and jokes it's ultimately trying to ask what purpose such gory stories serve in our society. In contrast, Scream is just trying to use it's meta-awareness to build a better mousetrap; it's self-referential qualities are a way of warning the audience that it isn't going to be doing what all the other generic horror movies are doing so the viewer needs to expect the unexpected. And Student Bodies barely feels like it's a horror film at all; it's basically a straight parody of horror movie cliches a la the Scary Movie franchise. (In fact, Student Bodies is such a silly movie that it might make more sense to compare it to the Scary Movies than it does to compare it to Cabin in the Woods and Scream, but quite honestly I'd rather spend my time thinking about Cabin in the Woods and Scream; the last time I saw a Scary Movie I immediately started trying to forget it.)

Anyway, even though Cabin in the Woods, Scream and Student Bodies are all very different, they all have a similar conceptual through line, because they all explicitly acknowledge horror's most repetitive tropes - the violent punishment of the lustful, the eventual salvation of the virginal "final girl", the nonsensical reveals of the killer's secret motivation - as a way of both indulging in the genre's more titillating aspects and interrogating them at the same time. Cabin in the Woods and Scream both do this with more intelligence, but of the three I actually think that Student Bodies is the most interesting, and that's just because it's the earliest.

Consider this: the first Halloween, which many people credit for creating the slasher film genre, came out in 1978; the first Friday the 13th, which is one of the most popular slasher films of all time, came out in 1980; and the first Nightmare on Elm Street, which might be the best of all of the slasher films, wouldn't come out until 1984. That means that Student Bodies was released at a time when the slasher movie genre wasn't even done being born yet, and yet this movie was already harping on how ridiculous and predictable those movies were with remarkable accuracy.

You'll notice that I said "accuracy", not "wit" - Student Bodies' various gags haven't necessarily aged well. All of the scenes where teens are acting unbelievably horny come off as being more crass than funny; one of the "this guy could be the killer!!!!" characters is a mentally handicapped janitor and all of his scenes feel a bit mean spirited; and the jokes that actually work are more silly than they are clever - they're basically slightly perverted variations of old Vaudeville routines. But none of that really bothered me, because I was more interested in tracking how perceptive Student Bodies was about the rhythms and conventions of exploitation movies than I was in trying to laugh at it's jokes. It opens with a spot-on parody of shocking openings where a random teen is stabbed for no good reason; it's second act is full of scenes where our female heroine tries to warn all the adults she knows about the killer who is stalking her and none of them listens; and it ends with a spoof of twist endings that's still relevant today, since there are still a lot of movies that end with a "the end?" instead of a "the end." In other words, it nailed the beginning, middle and end of your classic Halloween-inspired horror film.

So, yes, Student Bodies does feel a bit unrefined and raw, but there's a reason for that - it was trying to comment on an unrefined and raw genre. The movies that followed in Student Bodies' footsteps had the advantage of criticizing a genre that had already devolved into self-parody, so of course they were more insightful; they'd had an extra decade or two to think about all the he flaws in all of the countless killer-stalks-half-naked-teens movies. It might be a bit perverse to use Isaac Newton's quote "If I have seen farther it was because I was standing on the shoulders of giants" in this context because you can't really call a film as slight as Student Bodies a "giant" - but spiritually it does fit. After all, single celled organisms aren't exactly gigantic, but they eventually evolved into elephants.

At the end of the day, I think that Student Bodies is actually a lot more frightening than all of the movies it's mocking, even though it's playing it's murders for laughs instead of scares. That's because while I might suspend my disbelief and pretend that I'm afraid of axe murderers while I'm watching a horror film there is always going to be some part of my mind that is fully aware that the odds that I will be stabbed to death by a madman aren't very good. However, the odds of me getting older and dying are very good, and a film like Student Bodies definitely activates the tiny part of my brain that's always worried about that, because this film proves that old maxim about how there's nothing new under the sun. The fact that this film represents a credible (albeit admittedly abstract) threat means that it's a lot scarier to me than a film that represents a more visceral (albeit eminently unlikely) threat.

But here's the thing about growing older: it's not always as bad as it seems. I mean, I respect Student Bodies, but I'd much rather re-watch Scream, which isn't nearly as prophetic but which is definitely more entertaining. And sure, I understand that Stone Temple Pilots are maybe not that great on an objective level, and that my enjoyment of them might be purely nostalgic at this point, but I know that I will always enjoy listening to them on some level. Furthermore, I can get a certain kind of thrill out of those old records that a teen won't be able to get out of a Thirty Seconds to Mars song until at least another decade has passed. Maybe you do lose a bit of your ability to enjoy things as you age, but you also gain a bit of perspective on everything, and that's worth something, right?

(Of course, I say that now, but check back in with me in ten years. Then I might watch this movie and have a completely different reaction like "murdering teens? Sounds great! They're always on my lawn!" or "My God, I would murder someone to be as young as those kids are again". Or I might have another non-murderous reaction. Who knows? The only way to find out is to march into the future, that horrible monstrosity that is guaranteed to render us all redundant, but which could still (theoretically) be pleasant in some way!)

Winner: Me

Student Bodies on IMDB