Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

School of Fear was co-written by Dardano Sacchetti (whom you all should be well aware of), Roberto Gandus (who also co-wrote Macabre and Damned in Venice (1978)), and Giorgio Stegani (who co-wrote Cannibal Holocaust (1980)) and was scored by lucrative film composer Simon Boswell (Phenomena 1985) in the earlier phase of his career. The film was part of a television series consisting of four non-serialized movies directed by Bava, Alta Tensione, which also consisted of The Prince of Terror (1988), The Man Who Didn’t want to Die (1988), and Eye Witness (1990).

Diana Berti (Alessandra Acciai) is starting her first day teaching Italian literature to a class of twelve-year-old students at the Giacomo Stuz Private School in Pisa. No one bothers to tell her, at least not until later, that her predecessor died mysteriously, having fallen through glass from the balcony of the classroom (that broken frame, with sharp, jagged glass blades still looms dangerously near the entrance to the school, oddly enough).

The students' parents are highly conservative and influential people, as the headmistress, played by Daria Nicolodi, puts it to Diana. The children adhere to a strict dress code, with both girls and boys wearing dress shirts and ties with oversized broad-shouldered business coats with pinstripes that I thought looked like Gomez Addams’s outfit.

Diana is likable and I think would make a pretty cool teacher. Acciai does have a certain loveliness and plays Diana with a pretty even-keeled personality but can also elicit the right amount of concern and pathos from viewers when the situation calls for it. She’s friendly and approachable to the kids but becomes strict and serious for understandable reasons, but this gets her into trouble with the headmistress nonetheless. Diana’s love interest, the inspector (Jean Hebert), is completely useless and a real asshole for the most part, at least until close to the end.

The central plot mystery centers around Diana’s students’ secret club and their enigmatic and foreboding “game” they play. Diana starts to become privy to this game when she reads an older essay assigned by her predecessor from one of her students and starts to worry if something seriously wrong may be going on with the kids.

It starts to become a nightmare for her, as she starts to suspect this game may be related to the death of her predecessor and the times when certain children are absent or end up missing. Something serious is going on, and Diana struggles to get to the bottom of the mystery, with little help from her inspector friend, who doesn’t believe her since he feels children are not capable of such barbaric actions, a common theme in the movie regarding adults underestimating what children are capable of.

The writers of School of Fear seem to assume the worst when it comes to children, who in the film are suggestively portrayed to possess a dangerous mix of high intelligence and psychopathy and have a high potential for cruelty and evil, although they may not think so, and are really good at covering it up, especially when they stick together, using their childhood innocence, trivializing what they do as being just a game. The exact nature of this game in the film is not elaborated on fully, but there is much insinuation, and it seems to come about as a result of their desire to experience the adult world, a sort of reverse Peter Pan syndrome where children are tired of being children and grow up prematurely and are therefore dangerous, imitating what they read in the newspapers or see on TV, and are out of control, owing to the lack of conscience and because they can always hide behind their youthful, well educated, and properly mannered front.

The length the children go through to protect the secret nature of their game highlights a surprising lack of innocence in the face of their outwardly highly principled and strict moral upbringing. They are pseudo-moralists, as they will openly condemn the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini for immorality, but they are themselves worse than what they condemn. Their game is compelling at first; it seems to involve one of the kids going missing, and the missing kid is usually shown travelling alone through some dark place, presumably underneath the abandoned wing of the school. These dark scenes are fun and had me initially thinking there was some sort of dark fantasy element to it, but the actual nature of the game is not fun or cute at all but dead serious. (During the part when the children wear masks and act cruelly, I was reminded of Rule of Rose (2006) for the PlayStation 2.)

I do like the moments at the abandoned wing of the school since it comes off more like a decrepit old haunted mansion, but it’s never really explained or expanded upon, almost like the janitor’s abnormal son Giacomo who wanders the school at night. Neither element has a payoff of any sort and are there more for horror aesthetic purposes, possibly to add a darker fantastical element. You’ve got to love how nonchalantly the janitor mentions Giacomo after Diana expresses concern about having the feeling that someone watches her at night when she’s at the school, coincidentally to the janitor, who is like, “oh that’s just my son Giacomo. I let him wander around at night when everyone is gone; he’s not normal”. Of course, the prospect of the "deformed kid" idea had me thinking of Phenomena, but it ends up feeling a little pointless here even if Giacomo is supposed to be for added suspense and a sort of red herring. It’s a silly addition to a pretty serious film that is otherwise lacking in camp, which I find welcoming.

For being young kids in the ‘80s, Diana’s students are surprisingly adept with technology, as they manage to hijack a television signal in order to broadcast some disturbing footage they put together to frighten Diana with on her home TV. This reminded me of the unsolved “Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion” from 1987, an incident where a television signal was hijacked in Chicago, and bizarre and disturbing, as well as funny, footage of someone in a Max Headroom mask was broadcasted. The incident only happened a couple of years prior to School of Fear, so it’s interesting to think it may have had an influence on this particular highlight of the film.

Major Spoilers: 

When Diana discovers what goes on during the kids’ game, it agitates her past traumatic memories, resulting in a flashback to when she was chased by three people in carnival costumes and raped as a child. She suffered a nervous breakdown for it and was in the hospital for a time. Diana’s students somehow discover and learn from an old newspaper article that Diana is a rape victim and even use that as leverage, thinking no one would believe her if she attempts to expose their “game.” When she does, her colleagues don’t take her seriously, saying she is too sensible and impressionable. In the end, Diana is dismissed and her accusations are discarded, poignantly illustrating the folly of not believing rape victims or taking them seriously and how the problem will just continue if nothing is done about it. Because the school is accepted as so pure and clean on the surface, it cannot afford any kind of scandal to shatter that façade. After Diana is dismissed, the headmistress’s assistant asserts that their students are not monsters, drawing attention to them while they sing so innocently in the church-like choir. Even after everything they are all smiles and the perfect outward image of piety. Their game will likely go on. 

End Major Spoilers  

Daria Nicolodi isn’t in it as much as I would’ve liked, although she plays a pretty important role as a kind of unintentional antagonist in that she wants what’s best for Diana, but at the same time goes against anything Diana has to say, maintaining her tunnel vision on her strictly principled and moral private school where nothing bad could possibly happen. Also, Simon Boswell’s synth score is appropriately ‘80s sounding with a nice mix of melody and doom that succeeds at giving the whole mysterious school of secrets theme a bit more substance.  

School of Fear ends up being pretty heavy-handed and isn’t really the violent killer kid movie one might necessarily anticipate, as it is a lot more subtle and psychological. A large portion of the film is a drawn-out mystery investigation that’s rather slow paced with little action save for the third act, but it’s all quite dramatic and unsettling. It doesn’t have the best script and certain additions try to make it seem a little like a fun horror movie, but those elements are discarded for a finale with grave implications. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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