J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Into the Dark: School Spirit


There is nothing old school slashers enjoy more than killing naughty teenagers. It therefore stands to reason weekend detention would be a very happy hunting ground for some lucky psychopath. However, this is no place for a high-achieving class president like Erica Yang. Yet, that is exactly where she finds herself one fateful Saturday. The Breakfast Club gets a horror makeover courtesy of Blumhouse in Mike Gan’s School Spirit, the back-to-school installment of Hulu’s monthly Into the Dark series, which premieres tomorrow.

Yang has been working obscenely hard to become the first graduate of Helbrook High to make it into Harvard, so she is less than thrilled about this detour through detention. Her fellow detainees are quite curious what Helbrook’s “Admiral of the Year” did to warrant punishment, but she isn’t saying. On the other hand, pot-smoking Lizzy Witmore, rebellious Victor Castro, flaky stoner Russ Johns, and socially awkward weirdo Brett Calloway could have done any number of things to get there.

Unfortunately, Vice Principal Armstrong is even sterner than Paul Gleason in The Breakfast Club, but he also happens to be a raging alcoholic. Usually, when he gets into his cups, the kids can relax, but this time they will have to contend with a maniac dressed like the school mascot, the Helbrook Admiral. Legend has it, the school is haunted by the angry spirit of a teacher who was accidentally killed by her class and subsequently disposed of while camouflaged in a mascot uniform. Of course, as the story goes, she returned (still in costume) to direct her righteous rage at misbehaving students, somewhat in the tradition of Mrs.Voorhees.

In fact, School Spirit proudly wears its 1980s influences on its sleeve, which makes it jolly nostalgic fun to watch. Despite the ultra-now attitudes and dialogue, its aesthetic is old school all the way. Gan keeps it snappy and pacey, but also manages to build up a fair measure of suspense. Granted, it probably does not bring enough that is sufficiently new and fresh to the table to justify theatrical screenings, but it is quite enjoyable as an evening’s head-clearing horror streaming.

A great deal of credit should go to Annie Q., for maintaining the film’s high energy level. Admittedly, Yang has “final girl” stitched all over her cardigan, but AQ, a star in the making, keeps our sympathies engaged, while still managing to surprise us in key moments. Jessi Case and Julian Works also follow nicely in the John Hughes tradition, humanizing their bad kids to a considerable extent.

Gan definitely pushes all the right buttons for retro horror fans, without resorting to slavish imitation. This will almost certainly not go down as the best horror film of 2019, but it will probably be re-watched over time more than most. Enthusiastically recommended for those who dig throwback slashers, Into the Dark: School Spirit starts streaming tomorrow (8/2) on Hulu.

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