Night School (1981) Retrospective

Anne Barron is a teacher’s aide at a daycare center in Boston. One evening, she is relaxing on the playground carousel when someone pulls up on a motorcycle, wearing a black motorcycle helmet. She is startled as the stranger pulls out a kukri and starts spinning the carousel. The terrified Anne goes around until the kukri hits her. Judd Austin is the policeman assigned to the case. As he gets to the scene, he sees the girl decapitated with her head in a nearby bucket. The distraught director of the center tells Judd that Anne worked there during the day and was attending night classes at Wendall College.

At the hospital, Judd and his partner Taj discuss a similar case from the previous week, in which another girl was found decapitated with her head in a pond. They wonder if there’s any connection between the two murders. At Wendell, the administrator Helene Griffin tells Judd that Anne was close to a girl named Kim Morrison. When asked if Anne had a boyfriend, Kim tells Judd that Anne was indeed involved with someone, but she doesn’t know who. Judd enters Professor Millett’s anthropology class to speak with him about Anne. The professor doesn’t provide much information, but he introduces Judd to an exchange student named Eleanor Adjai. Eleanor leaves the school and goes to the local diner. There, she is creeped out by Gary, the busboy who appears to have mental issues. The waitress Carol asks Eleanor if she’s in Millett’s class and implies that he sleeps around, irritating Eleanor and she leaves. Gary follows her home. When she realizes this, she runs the rest of the way and quickly locks her door. She gets into the shower but someone tries to break in. Frightened, she gets out of the shower, only to find that it’s Professor Millett, her boyfriend who had been locked out by accident.

Kim works at the local aquarium. About to leave work, she takes off her diving suit and is decapitated by the figure in a motorcycle helmet. A woman who was previously looking at the turtles screams after she sees Kim’s head fall into the tank. Judd pays a visit to Professor Millett and is surprised to see Eleanor, who explains that she is his research assistant. Judd then informs Millett that a second student of his has been killed and asks him if he has had any affairs with his pupils. Annoyed by the question, Millett tells Judd to leave. Eleanor and Millett get into an argument and she goes to the diner to be alone. The professor follows her, and she tells him that she is three months pregnant. He’s sympathetic, although he still manages to flirt with Carol. After the diner has closed, Carol is left to clean up. When the power goes out, she heads to the basement to investigate. The killer appears and attacks her. Carol escapes, but is then caught in an alley and killed. The next day, Carol’s head is found in a water-filled sink and her body in a dumpster. Judd and Taj go to Gary’ house since he is now considered a prime suspect, but Judd doesn’t believe he was involved.

When Judd goes to Professor Millett’s home again, he finds a collection of skulls taken from tribal headhunters from around the world. Eleanor doesn’t see anything wrong with this. At Wendell, Helene tells Millett to stop sleeping around with his students and counsels student Kathy, who confesses that she too has been intimate with the professor. Helene invites the girl to spend the night at her house, resulting in the two sleeping together. Helene is killed when she gets up to answer the phone, and Kathy is killed shortly after discovering Helene’s head in the toilet.

Judd is on his way to speak to Helene when he sees the killer fleeing. He chases the killer to Professor Millett’s apartment. Inside, the killer is revealed to be Eleanor. She confesses the killings to her boyfriend and justifies the crimes by comparing them to tribal rituals he teaches in his courses. As the police are approaching, Millett puts on the helmet and flees on his motorcycle to divert the suspicion from Eleanor. During a chase with Judd and Taj, Millett is struck by a car and killed. Eleanor attends his burial and the police believe the case has been solved, although it is implied that Judd suspects Eleanor was the killer and Millett sacrificed his life to protect her. However, the case is closed and Eleanor moves back to England.

Night School (also known as Terror Eyes in the United Kingdom) is a 1981 American slasher film, directed by Ken Hughes and starring Rachel Ward in her film debut. The film was originally to be directed by Alfred Sole, but Sole passed on the project. Ken Hughes was ultimately brought in to direct, and Night School was his final film. The music score was composed by Brad Fiedel.

Night School was shot on location in Boston, Massachusetts, largely in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, in the spring of 1980 on a budget of $1.2 million. It was the second feature film to be near-exclusively shot in Boston, after The Brink’s Job. The final sequence however, tacked on after principal photography, was filmed in New York City.

Producer Ruth Avergon recalled of working with director Ken Hughes: “Ken had enormous energy … I just loved working with him. He was a joy to work with. He really knew what he was doing. There wasn’t a lot of second guessing. He knew what shots had to be taken for our budget. The production value that he gave us, along with cinematographer Mark Irwin, was wonderful. I thought they really captured a nice look for the film.”


Cinematographer Mark Irwin
Cinematographer Mark Irwin

Interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin
I believe you were filming Night School in 1980 (around the same time as Scanners) – how did you end up on that project? I realize it’s been a while, but do you remember anything special about the preproduction process or your collaboration with Ken Hughes during filming?
Mark Irwin: I shot Scanners in Montreal in late 1979 after shooting Funeral Home for Bill Fruet in the summer (in Toronto) and Tanya’s Island in the spring (in Puerto Rico). It was a very busy year and the height of the tax incentives.

Alfred Sole directed Tanya’s Island which starred Dee Dee Winters, a young Canadian actress and he was set to direct Night School and planned to have Dee Dee as the star but the producers had other ideas and following a dispute, Alfred left and so did Dee Dee. Anyway, I had been hired and I was in Boston prepping with an East coast crew when all of this went down. Work is work and I had no beef with the producers – a husband and wife team who were first and last time producers on this film – so I stuck around and was in the office when Ruth Avergon was now in need of a leading lady and saw the cover of a fashion magazine and said “We need a girl who looks like this!” and pointed to the cover girl Rachel Ward. The UPM [Unit Production Manager], my good friend Boyce Harman, said “Why don’t we just get her?” and so a career was born.

As for Ken Hughes, I think he was recommended by an agent or another producer. He was definitely a gun for hire and, since his credits were very broad and substantial but lacking in any horror credits, I was given a bigger load than I would have with Alfred or David or Bill. However, Ken was a true genius with staging, blocking, timing, pacing and performance and had the classic British mix of sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. I learned a huge amount from him and would watch him formulate coverage as the actors read the scene. He would ‘put it on it’s feet’ and block the angles and moves perfectly. I have often been accused of being ‘a machine’ on set in my single-minded mission to ‘get the day’ but a lot of that came from my formative experience in Boston on Night School.



There are two scenes in the film that I think are especially great. The first is the shower scene with Rachel Ward: there’s this nice slow zoom from inside the shower, looking out through the curtain as someone walks into the room. The other scene (my favorite) is with the woman in the scuba tank; the wide overhead shot when she gets out of the tank has really interesting lighting, there’s a tense sequence as she’s killed in the locker room, and then we return to the tank, where her head floats to the bottom and a sea turtle slowly pecks at it! Anything you’d like to say about either of those scenes?
Mark Irwin: The shower scene was a favorite of mine as well. The texture of the shower curtain was, to my eye looking through the viewfinder, dense enough to obscure the identity of the killer, but the film saw things differently. I remember that we planned to reshoot it but it never happened.
The New England Seaquarium scenes were all shot after hours so the sea life were off their usual feeding schedule. That plus the high heat and brightness from banks of maxi-brutes had the sharks acting in a very aggressive way but the head (filled with lead) was take two and, purely by chance, it hit the sea tortoise on the head. That’s entertainment!

What did you like about working in the horror genre? Any chance you’ll return to it at some point?
Mark Irwin: My view is very simple: horror films tend to be moral tales with life and death and an ending, happy or otherwise. My role is to take a viewer into a neutral world and slowly hide what they assume is true and replace it with what is actually true. Shadows, darkness, selective framing, motivated camera moves, lens choice, contrast – these are the nuts and bolts of what I get to use in sync with a mind like David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, Chuck Russell or Ken Hughes.

Telling a story with pictures. Simple. A good story will carry an audience. Watch Scream or The Fly or The Dead Zone. You don’t notice the lighting, the look-at-me lighting of a CSI episode, where style replaces content. I like horror films because the content is the style. Hitchcock knew it, so does Wes Craven and so does David. I would love to shoot more horror films. My crime is that the comedies have been successful so I am in a pigeon hole for a while. Who knows?

Rachel Ward & Drew Snyder


Rachel Ward & Drew Snyder

Interview with actor Drew Snyder
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.

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?
Drew 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.

Did you know the screenwriter Ruth Avergon? She is only credited with having written and produced this film…
Drew 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.

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?
Drew 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!’. 


What was Ken Hughes like as a director?
Drew Snyder: Well here is the thing about Ken. He was not like a Martin Scorsese who will come and like nurture you, like Barry Levinson, who will pull you off to the corner as friends of mine who worked on Avalon and say he would really kind of help you find the arch of your character. This was not Ken’s thing; you know what I mean? I can’t imagine being on the set of Cromwell, you know and keep thousands of people together, in the south of Spain with his megaphone! I have no idea. But, you know, Ken is like a miniature Richard Attenborough, when you think about it. I mean, he is in that great British director vain of just brilliant directing and the moving of people and placement of camera and angle and stuff.  But I do now that you mention it think that the lighting is very, very good in this film and I think that is part of what Ken wanted to create in terms of his kind of suspense and feeling and everything else. Yeah, I can see the vivid colours, dark but vivid, you know what I’m saying? I can see so that there would be something  I’m just thinking that I think I watched the film about three years ago and I looked at it and in a scene that was dark, whether it was dark because of something that was going to happen in the scene or just because if it was shot at night or something like that – there would always be this real bright element. They’d be a bright element within the frame. Yeah, the shoes and the rattling of the knife on the fence making the noise, all of those things are quite special. And I think that was Ken! I like was going to say knife pops along the fence making sound – I don’t remember. I have different found scripts from old things and stuff, but I don’t have that one.

This was your first theatrical feature film – were you happy with the role and the way the production followed through?
Drew Snyder: I had read the script, and I said, you know, well, this is what it is! I said, ‘I want to make something, I wanna make the jump from doing these small supporting roles to having a more, you know, leading role or a lead in a feature film’. I said, ‘There’s an advantage to that, and I think I need that!’ So to speak, in my rapporteur, my background or whatever, I’ll tell you a personal story. I was married at the time. I’m not married to that person, and the person sadly died very early. Anyway, the script came. I was sitting there with my wife and opened up the script without knowing it, just opened it up to page thirty-two or whatever it was, to the naked scene in the shower, and she said to me and said read it, she said, ‘If you do that I am going to divorce you!’ I said, ‘Get out of here! It’s just a film! Come on!’ I said, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a movie! It’s fake, you know? Don’t worry about it!’ I was happy to be able to work consistently on a character for you know, four or five or six weeks on a film, out of town, on location. I wanted what that experience was. I thought that that was a good thing to have. 


Your character is a red herring – throughout the film it is implied that you are in fact offing the school girls and you play the role as though this may in fact be the case. What was your approach to this?
Drew Snyder: Well, I think that was implied and written in there, but I think there is a scenes in that film that I think really kind of points that out. That’s the one – there is a tiny, little scene, in the beginning, I think in a third of the film, in the cafeteria or not a cafeteria but like in a diner where the girl brings coffee or brings something to the table, and I’m friendly with her and that’s the red herring, as you said, you know, that is thrown in Rachel’s direction. So it both is the red herring, but also Rachel’s character with the sense of jealously or whatever, you know that she is not enough for this guy or whatever. I look at that scene and actually, the work in that scene, actually the work in that scene – both her work and my work is pretty good because it is pretty unencumbered; it’s pretty simple, it’s not cluttered, it’s not acted, you know what I am saying, when I watch that scene again. I can see her consciousness and her stress that she feels about the relationship not being what she wants it to be. I get a sense of that. He seems to blow it off and be okay, you know.

I love all the anthropological inserts in the film – the idea that your character is a professor of such studies and uses it in his day to day life; most notably the ritualistic sex scene in the shower. What were your thoughts on this element to the script?
Drew Snyder: Well most of the movie dealt with head hunting! I liked that aspect! Wasn’t it in the Philippines just about fifteen-twenty years ago that they discovered the Casani people – the Casani were not even in the iron age, they were in the stone age! The thing that they did notice about them was that love terminated their whole society, and they were more gatherers and they would eat little crayfish out of the streams and stuff like that, but they were not even into an iron or bronze age or anything like that. They were still in the stone-age. I’m sure there were many stone-age people that were also violent that ended up having to kill a mastodon in order to eat or something, you know. I think all of that is interesting and supports kind of a textured element of a though-line in terms of… you know it is not arbitrary. 

The film often gets criticized by hardened slasher fans for not being violent enough – or not having enough onscreen gore – what are your thoughts on this?
Drew Snyder: Here is what I would say. I don’t know who it was that said this to me, and they said it and I really heard what they said, it might have been Frank Capra Jr. who produced Firestarter, was saying when we were talking; he really loved film. He got that from his father, you know? He really understood film. But he said that there was nothing wrong with “copying”  –  or I don’t know if he used the word ‘’copying’’ scene that’s been done in another movie. He said ‘the thing is if you do it, you just want to make sure that you do it as well if not better!’ So I would say about the, from what you just said to me about the scene in the shower with the girl and the blood – we saw that right in the Hitchcock film with Anthony Perkins, Psycho.  So, I’m not saying that Ken was thinking of Psycho, but what happens is if it works, you know, then it works! If it doesn’t work, then if you’re smart then that’s the thing. So I think all of that is important in terms of giving the audience enough but not answering everything fully and not spoon feeding them. I think one that would have more violence. I think the good thing about this film is that it is pretty violent. As I said, you get a lesbians head in a toilet bowl, you know, so how can you be more violent than that? It had nothing to do with being a lesbian or anything else; it’s really kind of like obtuse, I mean, it’s pretty out there! I think without having to see all of the gratuitous violence that becomes more a cartoon thing. I think your response to the feeling and the mood and the texture and everything that kind of solicits an emotional response when we watch it is a good thing. I think it’s a creative thing. More creative for this genre than other films and it doesn’t surprise me that it was up against The Howling for that fantasy and horror award, and this one, you know, it got an award of something for it. And I can understand that now. When I was doing it, I don’t think I fully saw it as that. I was not invited, but I don’t like to watch dailies because I think actors are pretty critical of themselves and they’ll see something that is already in the can and can’t be changed, and they’ll go back and try to make up for what they didn’t do in that scene that has already been shot! And they end up kind of throwing themselves off in terms of an arc that they are trying to create with the character that they are developing, I think. There’s a great film; I can’t remember what it was… Dustin Hoffman. He went, and he went to see the screening of this film for the director’s cut or the rough cut or the first cut or whatever. He said, “That’s not the film I made!” And they said, “What do you mean? What do you mean? That’s you! That’s you up there!” He said, “No. No. We did that other take, and that other take that we talked about that was more right for the character”, And so he saw that what he was working on never made it to the screen,  so I can understand why, really, big, powerful actors within the industry want to have some sort of say, because it was not the character they were trying to create. And all the little nuances, all the small things. Rachel’s feeling uncomfortable in that scene in the coffee shop. If someone else had cut the film, maybe they would cut that out, you know? So it makes sense to me. But I don’t like to go see things, you know? ‘Oh sh*t! I could have done that better! No. Why didn’t I think about that line when I was saying it so I could have a feeling of nobody else knows that. It sounds real phony to me versus living the character, you know, versus, you know, saying the words in the script and hoping that the shot and the location and everything else is going to make up for it!

Night School (1981) Brad Fiedel


Ken Hughes

Ruth Avergon
Larry Babb

Ruth Avergon

Rachel Ward as Eleanor Adjai
Leonard Mann as Lt. Judd Austin
Drew Snyder as Vincent Millett
Joseph R. Sicari as Taj
Nicholas Cairis as Gus
Karen MacDonald as Carol
Annette Miller as Helene Griffin
Bill McCann as Gary
Margo Skinner as Stevie Cabot
Kevin Fennessy as Harry The Janitor
Elizabeth Barnitz as Kim Morrison
Holly Hardman as Kathy
Meb Boden as Anne Barron
Leonard Corman as Priest
Belle McDonald as Marjorie Armand
Ed Higgins as Coroner (as Ed Higgins)


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