Night School: Actor Drew Snyder remembers making 1981 female-centric slasher saga
1981 was an excellent and diverse year for horror – many classic favorites popped up and provided audiences with scares whilst impressing critics. Some of these films called upon past movie monster tropes such as an outing for werewolves with The Howling, Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London, some delivered a visceral onslaught of terror such as The Evil Dead and The Beyond, while during the heyday of the slasher boom, films such as Halloween II, Just Before Dawn, Happy Birthday to Me, The Burning, Absurd and more delivered the frenzied violence that rabid horror fans itched for. One of these slasher films from this great year in cinematic horror was Night School, which plays with tribal ritualistic killing, Giallo aesthetic and thematic tropes, the horror of personality and police procedural. This stylish slice’n’dice “whodunit” is also thoroughly injected with red herrings, and number one red herring is actor Drew Snyder, who spent some time with us talking about the shoot.
ComingSoon.net: Night School is one of those great slasher films that features a female as its killer – did you like this element?
Drew Snyder: Well, I guess I must have liked it because people would say “Oh I haven’t seen slasher films with women as the killer so much”, and I would say “Well, it’s the only slasher film that you’ll see with a lesbian’s head in a toilet bowl!” They’d say “What?”, and I’d say “Well, you know, it’s a woman whose is the evil doer here.” So I guess I must have liked that aspect. I thought that part of it was fascinating! I think working with Ken Hughes was amazing; but at that time, he had kind of fallen a little bit out of fame because he had gotten the BAFTA, the British version of the Academy Award for Cromwell or The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, with Peter Finch and of course he had done classics like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but as a director, he was an exceptional guy, and he was brought in to rewrite Night School and film it. So he had a good hand in that. I think he cut it together pretty well. So that is why the film looks so good as well as it does because here you have this first rate – you know the guy did Cromwell, an amazing film.
CS: Night School has a very Italian Giallo feel – the police procedural, the black gloves and Rachel Ward’s costuming etc – was this Ken Hughes’s intention?
Snyder: I think that Ken was brought on later. They didn’t start filming until Ken was on board, if my memory serves me. I was there from the beginning of the filming on. I think they might have decided on some sort of director, and then they wanted somebody who was going to be able to structure the piece better, you know, more completely, and that might have been style-wise or also from the writing because Ken seemed to take a hand in the writing. We did rewrites and stuff like that, so I think he had kind of a really open, free hand with it. So he didn’t impart any of that; he was a little bit opaque is what I’m saying, as a person. You know, it wasn’t until I went to his apartment, here in Los Angeles just after I made the film that I saw the hanging of some of his awards over his mantle which had his BAFTA on it! And then I saw the hanging of a communist flag or whatever. He was just a very kind of bizarre, out there kind of guy, you know? I mean, communism was just about ready to be dead by that time. He was just a kind of eccentric. I want to think that Ken was really like an older version of Tim Burton. Tim Burton is very opaque. I remember I auditioned for him once, and I was doing something that was serious, and he thought it was humorous, and I thought, my head was saying to me ‘What the f*ck is this guy laughing at? What’s going on?’ But after seeing all of his films and the brilliance of his filmmaking and everything else, you understand that he marches to his own drummer, seeing the world in a different point-of-view, from a different eye. I think Ken was like that. So going back to your original question about the Italian visual style of the film, I strongly agree and it had this kind of feeling, I think your instincts are right. However, I am not sure if whether Ken had intentionally done that or if that was just part of who he was. Simply put: he saw things differently.
CS: Did you know the screenwriter Ruth Avergon? She is only credited with having written and produced this film…
Snyder: Yes. She was a local person, I think. When I say local, I think she was from the east coast or from the Boston area or whatever, and yes, I remember her being on set. She seemed to always defer to Ken all the time and was happy for whatever textual or literal terms of script influence he was bringing to it and she seemed pretty happy with that.
CS: The slasher film subgenre is very female-centric – it is always about women or girls and their plight – presenting them both as survivors and victims. And, when the film features the killer as a female, it also remains female-centric, in that the killer herself is usually the central character, as opposed to male killers who are usually off camera for the most part. What are your thoughts on the slasher film in response to female visibility in contemporary cinema?
Snyder: Wow that is a very profound, interesting question. I’ve always said the world would be a better place if it was run by women. But I am sure within that statement there is that level of gratuitous violence that exists in societal situations perpetrated by both men and women. I mean men seem to do more violent crimes against people. I mean physically, usually by men. I mean, it doesn’t seem to exclude women. I mean, there are women in prison who have done some pretty really nasty things, right? So I think it’s like equal opportunity, you know, either for love, violence, hate, anger, fear, all of those things. Because we are one gender or the other does not separate us or make us immune from having those sorts of feelings. I don’t know with Ruth Avergon, if it was because it was written by a woman, decided to make the woman the antagonist/protagonist kind of thing. That I don’t know. I had never had a discussion with her on that or whatever. I would kind of defer to Ken all the time, you know, and kind of lean on him. He was a really, really unusual guy. I mean, he would watch the run-throughs with the camera man and do everything else, and then he would decide to shoot, and say “action” and turn his back from the camera! I now think what that was about – I don’t think that it was about this particular film or whatever. I don’t know if he did that with everything? But he knew enough about what he wanted to see, and once he had his crew… his people, and the actors and everything, kind of in position and have it happen, I think it was his way of allowing magic to happen in front of the camera. Find the magic of the moment. And I think his ear was very good, so he knew that by turning his kind of back on it he was really opening it up in some sort of different way. And he could hear if something was really off-balance about the scene. It was almost like a textual thing he was trying to go for or whatever, you know? If you’re doing scene, you can’t look and see if the director is watching. A number of times I watched him do that and thought ‘well this is really bizarre!’. I mean, something is not taking place or whatever. But I think he had a relationship with the camera man, and I think he had worked with the camera man and stuff, so I think he trusted what that was about, knowing that he would be told that if something was not, you know, right for the scene or whatever. It was just a very, very strange but then I thought, you know, what he was doing is…. you know, John Schlesinger, when I worked with him, God bless him he’s such a brilliant filmmaker, but he would shoot the exact script on the page, and he would have the semantics there on the page next to it so that everything would match up. So he’d have everything that was scripted and everything. And then he would say to the people if it was a page and a half or half a page or a couple pages scene and he’d say, ‘well now just improvise the scene.’ And we’d say, ‘well, should we use the same dialogue?’ He’d say, ‘you don’t have to use the same dialogue. Just do whatever you want to do!’ And he would film that! And that was the film Falcon and the Snowman. What was interesting about that, was that a couple of takes, elements of the take he did use from these improvisation type of things. So it wasn’t just about the actor, it was about catching different behavior of a character that he thought might be right for the pacing or the texture of the timing of the story he was wanting to tell. So I think that was just what Ken’s thing was. He was just willing to kind of throw it up in the air, you know? Knowing that if this or this in the next take or how many, I don’t know what the budget situation was or how many takes he could handle financially. And maybe this was Ken’s way of kind of doing something similar, just kind of laying it out there. Or maybe, or maybe he just filmed the run-though, when we didn’t know it, you know what I’m saying?
To be continued….