On the face of it, Graduation Day is not so different from the dozen or so other Slasher films that cropped up in the sub-genre’s Golden Year of 1981. The film’s director, Herb Freed (now the Rabbi Herb Freed), even admitted studying earlier Slashers, like Halloween and Friday the 13th, deconstructing them so as to build his own film.
One of the things Freed discovered is that there is an almost exact timeframe denoting when a kill should take place. Every few minutes, he explains, a kill had to occur. He even claimed that one could time the kills in a typical Slasher using a stopwatch.
This might have been what inspired one of the film’s more clever motifs: the killer literally times his kills, setting off a stopwatch as he begins to stalk his next victim, and clicking it off once his deadly mission accomplished.
Little details of this sort—most effectively used during the first kill, as the killer paces then overtakes a jogger—help distinguish Graduation Day from its predecessors and contemporaries.
The plot is nothing special. A girl, Laura, dies of an embolism following a particularly strenuous track event and her sister, Anne, returns from her posting in Guam to receive a trophy on Laura’s behalf.
Shortly after Anne arrives, the members of Laura’s track team begin dying off. In the kills, Freed demonstrates further originality and a sense of fun. The kill involving the pole-vault is especially satisfying.
Given that Graduation Day was produced by Troma, it should come as no surprise that it is peopled by some of the most idiotic characters this side of . . . well, another Troma film. The adults, in particular, come off borderline reprehensible. We have Mr. Roberts, the school’s resident lounge lizard and pederast; there’s the principal, who appears to keep his secretary, Bunny, as some sort of sex slave; and the sheriff—or maybe he’s just a campus guard, I’m not sure, but he actually loses his badge midway through the movie so . . .
Oh, and there’s Kevin, Laura’s boyfriend, who looks as though his first day of high school was sometime right after the boys got back from The War, and now he’s finally graduating after approximately thirty years as a student. Good for Kevin. He should be proud.
Anne is a bit of a Slasher anachronism; an adult, not a teen, who is an outsider, not directly connected to the victims, and doesn’t really play a major role in the story until the end, once the killer has been revealed. She is, however, a capable Final Girl, established early on as being able to take care of herself, especially when confronted by creepy guys.
Despite clever kills, a welcome sense of fun, and a strong Final Girl, Graduation Day suffers from one major flaw: zero tension. Though Freed claimed to’ve been aware of the need for a carefully timed build-up to every kill, the build-ups in Graduation Day just don’t work—with the notable exception of the aforementioned jogging scene. Maybe Freed played things a little too tight, kept things too structured—I don’t know, I just know that, as clever as they might be in their execution, the kills feel telegraphed; the money shots are good, but the foreplay’s weak, if you will.
That said, there’s more good than bad in Graduation Day, making it well-worth a watch.
Length: 93 min