Graduation Day (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #351

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 1, 1981
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $350,000
Box Office: $23,894,000
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director: Herb Freed
Producer: David Baughn, Herb Freed, Hal Schwartz
Screenplay: David Baughn, Herb Freed, Anne Marisse
Special Effects: Jill Rockow
Cinematography: Daniel Yarussi
Score: Arthur Kempel
Editing: Martin Jay Sadoff
Studio: Troma Entertainment
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Stars: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. J. Peaker, E. Danny Murphy, Michael Pataki, Richard Balin, Carmen Argenziano, Virgil Frye, Beverly Dixon, Hal Bokar, Linnea Quigley, Denise Chesire, Billy Hufsey, Tom Hintnaus, Carl Rey, Karen Abbott, Vanna White

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Suggested Audio Candy

Lance Owg, Gabriel Rohels & David Cole “The Winner”

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I make no absolutely secret of the fact that eighties slasher holds an exclusive place very close to my heart. Recently I put together a rundown of all the top-tier films from this lucrative period but it got me to thinking. What of the also-rans? Films such as Ken Wiederhorn’s Eyes of a Stranger, Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow’s The Dorm That Dripped Blood aka Pranks, and Larry Stewart’s The Initiation are often overlooked and, it has to be said, they fell short of the quality of the pace setters. Herb Freed’s athletic effort Graduation Day is another forgotten peach and, while considerably below the standard of more notable entries from its epoch, it still managed to rake in just shy of $25m theatrically so deserves a second look for that fact alone.

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1981 was something of a vintage year for slasher. Friday The 13th helped open the floodgates a year previous while My Bloody Valentine and The Burning were attempting to consolidate its position as a bankable proposition at the box office. Graduation Day profited from the meteoric rise of the genre and gave roles to Christopher George (City of The Living Dead, Pieces) and in a smaller capacity, a young Linnea Quigley. The result is a movie which, despite falling way short of its more elaborate rivals in terms of overall quality or memorable grue, remains unashamedly eighties and still holds a certain nostalgic appeal to this very day.

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It only takes the five-minute opening scene for us to know exactly where Freed’s film is leading us and this montage alone is worth the price of admission. Cheesy in excess and far more upbeat than is necessitated considering it sees the demise of a promising high school track runner and sets the tone for the next ninety minutes, it nevertheless holds a particular glamour evocative of the era and is instantly forgivable for such Camembert. In no time the bodies have begun hitting the floor at regular intersections and the content in-between is largely inconsequential. Freed never aims high and instead focuses on turning a fast buck and having a whole heap of fun in the process.

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Our killer, clad in fencing mask and brandishing a rapier, wastes no time in punctuating the dead girl’s friends one by one and Graduation Day becomes indistinguishable from the countless other whodunnits which were surfacing with alarming regularity around the time. We are presented with our suspects which include track coach George Michaels (George), suspicious high school principal Guglione (Michael Pataki), the hilariously named Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy), heartbroken boyfriend of our fallen athlete Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens), and her sister Anne (Patch Mackenzie) on her homecoming from the navy. Does it make a blind bit of difference who is behind the mask? Not in the slightest. Will it take a degree in quantum physics to work out? A functioning brain is barely necessitated. Are we along for the ride? You’re damned right we bloody are.

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Director Freed had an unlikely résumé going into Graduation Day which included being a rabbi, folk singer, and dancer in addition to bringing us Haunts in 1977. He knows full well that his film offers little in the way of characterization and decides to pad his running time at around the midway point with … another rousing montage. Any thoughts of building any palpable tension are discarded in favor of a little irreverent pop silage courtesy of Felony and flash cut editing as our killer claims a couple more scalps for his mantle. Evidently, our masked marauder is a huge fan of popular culture, as it allows him to pick up his pace and warp in front of his quarry. Either that or steroids.

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A good eighties slasher flick profits or plummets depending on its kill count and Graduation Day delivers enough dispatches to ensure it never outstays its running time. However, this is also a bone of contention with Keeper. I can almost hear Siskel & Ebert turning in their graves as I state this but there just isn’t enough exploitation for my liking. Joseph Zito’s The Prowler was no masterpiece in terms of overall quality but what it did get on the money was the bloodletting. There is precious little here to get excited about and the experience is markedly neutered by such an omission, particularly seeing as suspense is never really an option.

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Graduation Day sits comfortably in the upper echelons of the second-tier slasher and there are far worse culprits in existence. What is unnerving is that it never has any intention of being the winner and is more than content to sit in the sidelines while others complete the race. Whether or not it is worthy of a second look depends largely on the company you keep. Should you have a keg of beer and some inebriated buddies on hand then knock yourself out; but set your bar of expectation too high and you may well be for the high jump.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: One particularly pleasing neck lancing is standout here but many of the kills are relatively bloodless. That’s not to say that we aren’t provided with fleeting decapitation, multiple impalement, an airborne blade masquerading as a football, and woefully powder puff throat slice, but there’s nothing you won’t have seen executed better elsewhere. Mercifully, the spirited Quigley is on hand to flash those purty flesh canisters of hers and that’s the kind of padding a film like this desperately needs.

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Read The Prowler Appraisal

Read Pieces Appraisal

Read Happy Birthday To Me Appraisal

Read The Sleeper Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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