The poster for 1981’s Student Bodies asserts that it’s “the world’s first comedy horror movie,” a claim that is so patently untrue, you kind of have to admire its guts. After all, comedy and horror have been intertwined since the silent age; for every Frankenstein or The Mummy, there’s a movie in which Abbott and Costello meet them. But what Student Bodies lacked in originality it made up for in sheer oddity. It is far and away one of the most unusual movies to ever come out of Texas. It’s also, to my knowledge, the only slasher film to feature a future Texas state senator, unless Matthew McConaughey ever decides to run.
The Student Bodies DVD cover gets slightly closer to the truth, trumpeting “Before there was Scream, there was Student Bodies.” But while that’s technically accurate, it’s still a bit of an overreach. The Scream franchise deconstructed slasher film conventions while also giving them a cleverly postmodern revitalization—one that, as the recent Scream trailer attests, is still going strong. But Student Bodies was more like the Scary Movie spoofs that Scream inspired: it was interested only in mocking the more obvious tropes of the genre, along with anyone who actually enjoys them. If anything, Student Bodies was the world’s first openly self-loathing horror movie.
Taking its cues from contemporaries like Halloween and Friday the 13th—and explicitly chasing the money they’d made—Student Bodies casts Kristen Riter, in her first and only film, as Toby Badger, a chaste teen à la Halloween’s Laurie Strode, who watches helplessly as a deranged killer, known only as the Breather, begins dispatching her horniest classmates. Toby’s sexual repression (she wears a button on her blouse that simply reads “No”) soon makes her a prime suspect in the murders, alongside the school’s various borderline-deranged faculty members. As the clichés start to pile up alongside the corpses, Student Bodies keeps a “body count” tally on screen, while also using graphics to call attention to things like the doors that its imminent victims have left carelessly unlocked. The film’s humor is self-aware bordering on hostile. At one point, a man interrupts the action to address the audience directly on behalf of the producers, noting that the film needs profanity to earn the R rating that would guarantee box-office success. “F— you,” the man says, fairly summing up the movie’s whole attitude.
Unlike the loving homage of Scream, Student Bodies feels very much like a movie made by an older Hollywood generation sneering at the crap the kids are into. That’s because it was. The film’s creative team included Mickey Rose, longtime Woody Allen collaborator and talk-show gag man; veteran sitcom writer Jerry Belson; and The Bad News Bears director Michael Ritchie. None of them seemed especially proud of their work. Both Belson and Ritchie would later all but disavow the film, with Ritchie taking an “Allen Smithee” credit. The lack of any real public acknowledgement from the people who made Student Bodies has left the film with an unusually murky history. Take, for example, the lingering confusion over whether the Breather was actually voiced by Belson, using the pseudonym “Richard Brando,” or by comedian and Law & Order: SVU actor Richard Belzer. Even Belzer says he’s unable to recall whether it’s him—and he doesn’t particularly seem to care.
While no one can say so definitively, the internet consensus seems to be that Student Bodies was the by-product of a 1981 strike by the Writers Guild of America. As the story goes, Paramount was hoping to cash in on the serial killer craze with something it could make on the fly while circumventing the unions. That meant moving production to Houston, where the studio could take full advantage of Texas’s right-to-work laws. It also meant casting mostly unknowns such as Riter and Sarah Eckhardt, the current Texas state senator and former county judge for Travis County, who turns up as the would-be prom queen Patti Priswell (a fact that Eckhardt has somehow never touted in campaign ads).
Student Bodies was filmed at several locations around Houston and in nearby Katy, including some key scenes at Texas Southern University and Katy’s James E. Taylor High School, as well as a parade sequence that was shot downtown with the Pearland High School marching band. The Yellow Jackets football team, from what was then known as Port Arthur’s Thomas Jefferson High School, also pack in for a lengthy cameo. And Houstonians may be amused to see that all these kids attend “Lamab High School,” hastily (and cheaply) renamed after the real-life Lamar High School complained. Still, despite all the local flavor, you’d be hard-pressed to call Student Bodies a “Texas” horror movie. Certainly the film doesn’t take advantage of the state’s uniquely backwoods atmospheres the way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Town That Dreaded Sundown did. Even Irwin Allen’s widely panned killer bee movie The Swarm made far greater use of Houston landmarks such as the Astrodome (even if the city probably wishes it hadn’t).
Nevertheless, Student Bodies has proved to be a surprisingly lasting part of Texas’s horror legacy. It wasn’t much of a hit at the box office, R rating notwithstanding: critics drubbed it as a subpar attempt at Airplane!-style parody, while audiences were likely just left confused. (And as villains go, it’s worth noting that the Breather is also exceptionally off-putting, with Belson and/or Belzer panting in the viewer’s ear like a winded dog for most of the running time.) Yet the film found new life on home video and especially on cable, where it became a mainstay of B-movie showcases like USA’s Up All Night. There, Student Bodies slowly built up a following among viewers who probably tuned in expecting the kind of gory T&A fest it was parodying, only to be caught agreeably off guard. In fact, Student Bodies contains no nudity, and it keeps its kills both tame and largely off-screen, which would help to explain why it was able to hang around TV for decades after. Today you can still easily find Student Bodies streaming through services like Amazon and Pluto, as well as in both DVD and Blu-ray editions.
Seeing Student Bodies on the more lenient small screen, far removed from the grand delusion that it was “skewering” horror movies, it’s also easier to appreciate some of the film’s finer quirks—like Joe Flood’s remarkably committed performance as a tightly wound shop teacher, who believes “mankind’s greatest achievement is the horse-head bookend.” But undoubtedly the funniest thing about Student Bodies is its lightly absurdist, almost nihilistic tone: While telling a crowd just how deeply affected he’s been by all these murdered teenagers, for example, the school principal (Joe Talarowski) muses offhand, “It’s probably no picnic for their parents, either.” Meanwhile, the kids all behave like sex-crazed maniacs, even when they’re literally standing over a classmate’s grave. (“Funerals get me hot!” one enthuses in Eckhardt’s ear.) There’s probably some deeper thesis to be written here about how the film cannily examines the ominous reality of our own mortality, which we all blithely ignore just to get through the day. Then again, Student Bodies is way more interested in fart jokes.
For all those broader strokes, Student Bodies is also a dark, defiantly weird little picture, and this aspect of it still plays much better forty years later than all those corny cartoon gags and Mad Magazine–style riffs on horror movies (to say nothing of the film’s regrettable jokes about Black people or the disabled). The fact that its cast, as well as the story behind its production, have since been scattered to the winds only makes it more fascinating as a curio. It’s a film that, while not as groundbreaking as some may claim, is still one of a kind. You might not laugh at everything about Student Bodies, and you definitely won’t be scared. But unlike Richard Belzer, you’ll never forget it.