Blessed Be, Grandfather Tree…

TJ and I walk a routine path a couple times a week, but it took us many outings until we spotted this majestic grandfather tree, hanging tough on borrowed time and pushing his exuberance through his weathered, gnarled and termite-chewed facade. In fact, we both agreed the grandfather called to us before I took his picture. We also agreed a third of the way down from the top is the grandfather’s face, peering right at the trail in search of an appreciative eye.

You be the judge, but I can tell you this was taken during sundown and the natural lighting was much lower than is presented in the shot. I used no filters and I made no adjustments. Grandfather’s vibrance shone on his own, rewarding us for taking the time to stop and acknowledge him. Blessed be, Grandfather Tree. A long life well-met.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Five Favorite Things You May Not Have of Your Own

I’ve been seeing a trend out here amongst scribes communing in the Blogverse, writers discussing their favorite things. I could refer you to the picture above as a prime example of my absolute favorite thing, having a woman like TJ as my best friend in our favorite habitat: on a trail.

I can always cite my son, my family and all of my beautiful friends as the top shelf favorite things in my life. Ditto for a wide and diverse pantheon, largely Egyptian, but represented as well by the Norse, Germanic and Greek sects, altogether constituting an alternate form of spiritualism. All of this combined gives me my verve, my reason to wake up, my ambition to be the best I can be in my job and as a writer.

I think we can all agree our loved ones and spiritual connections make up the top tiers of our welfare and happiness. We also have tangible treasures unique to us, which may sparkle to some, turn away others. Some of us have the ultra-rare privilege of ownership to things most others do not. For this post, I want to share five of my very favorite things you likely don’t have, not that it’s a brag. There’s very little material worth involved, but I do love these simple things which represent me or are fun extensions of me…

My CD copy of Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime, an all-time favorite and a writer’s album. Autographed by former vocalist, Geoff Tate, with whom I had dinner and an interview in Washington, DC before a Queensryche show. An unforgettable moment of my music journalism career, Tate and I spoke casually and formally about music and the industry. He gave me pointers then as a fledgling journalist I never forgot.

My trusty Donald Duck coffee mug purchased at Disney World, Florida in 2010. The classic Donald, circa the 1930s and ’40s. I had to have it, along with a can of Mickey’s “Really Swell” Coffee, which was then…really daggone swell! I have a good handful of coffee mugs, but even TJ pulls Donald down for me automatically when fixing me a tea or before I set up my coffeepot. The mug is out of circulation, and I thank myself almost every time I use it for getting it while I had the chance.

“Sir Percy.” My parents obtained me this four-foot aluminum knight in Cape May, NJ. The story I was told of my stepfather hauling him all over the resort is a family treasure in itself. Percy is the middle name of my grandfather, with whom I had a deep bond and who predicted to me at his kitchen table when I was 12 and already burrowed into Stephen King novels, I would become a writer one day. Sir Percy has served as protector of my realm in 7 homes.

My original 1978 Han Solo blaster from Kenner. No, it’s not the one from my childhood. No, it doesn’t have the packaging. No, it doesn’t work, as in making the high-pitched laser screech. I don’t care. I love it. I’ve had to reassemble it a few times, but as a kid, when we all played Star Wars, most boys would offer to take on a Gundark for the right to be Luke. Usually that was settled rock-scissors-paper elimination style. Not me. Solo. ’nuff said.

Reading in bed with TJ. The end of the day, the kiddo in bed for the night. The day’s worries and trials settled for the time being. Just us and a pair of books. Sometimes we end up stopping to have a family strategy session. More often than not, TJ beats me staying awake. Still, it’s our most favorite nightly ritual as a couple.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Saturday Night Gospel of Headbangers Ball

Years ago while I was writing in the music industry, I had the opportunity to pitch a resurrection plan to an MTV executive I’d grown chummy with from visits on assignment to New York City. Said player in the tale will remain anonymous. We’d shared a passion for the network’s weekly devotions offered in the name of heavy metal music, Headbangers Ball. Prior to this, I’d had the chance to talk to VH-1 and metal journalist legend, Eddie Trunk for a few minutes and I’d scored an all-time favorite interview with original MTV veejay, Nina Blackwood. It was a high time of my writing life, when my home office was nearly half the basement in a rancher, and all the free, promotional media I was sent for review consideration surrounded me in a literal labyrinth.

Ray Van Horn, Jr., circa 2014

Welp, after two runs of the beloved Headbangers Ball (the much heavier reincarnation spanning through the early 2000s), the proposal I’d come up with was nixed and sent into the ether with other woebegone MTV segments from pre-reality show yesteryear: Remote Control, Liquid Television, Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes. I think about this presumed yes from time-to-time, and realize I might’ve been huckstered into submitting a blind faith prospectus to a lost cause.

Last week, I finished the final draft to a new novel in the hands of a prospective literary agent, a retro partial autobiography centering on my teen years, in which metal music was figurative. I mention Headbangers Ball a couple times, set during the original show’s run beginning April of 1987.

My novel’s core protagonists observe the same weekly ritual old school heavy metal addicts did back then. Saturdays at midnight, MTV. Be there or be a poser. Adjust all weekend plans to accommodate. Clear the parents from the room with the biggest and loudest television. Pop a beer if you were of age. Sneak it after said parents went to bed if you weren’t.

Headbangers Ball (or simply, “The Ball” to metalheads of all generations) was not merely a two-hour show devoted to heavy music. It was a secular religion. Jerry Falwell and his money-grubbing televangelists had their say on the tube six hours later on Sunday mornings. At the strike of twelve, however, cathodes were controlled by counterculture music for outcasts. Or so it was in the beginning…

You could say the great debate to Headbangers Ball in the late Eighties was whether it would ever have a proper VJ to field the band interviews and transition the showcased heavy metal videos. So many fans of the day screamed bloody murder at the show’s questionable-fit first hosts, Asher “Smash” Benrubi, Kevin Seal and Adam Curry. O.G.V.J. fashionista “Downtown” Julie Brown gave it her best, wubba wubba wubba, but it wasn’t until L.A. rock scenester Riki Rachtman made the show his for five years. This, despite being notoriously hazed by bands on the set while learning the ropes and being roasted by viewers as metal music changed and then evaporated in the U.S. for a while.

The show had become such a Ball of confusion MTV had visible trouble differentiating Black Sabbath from Blind Melon, Faster Pussycat from Four Non-Blondes. As if the Bon Jovi, Poison and Warrant clones hadn’t done enough damage to the show and to the scene itself. Guns n’ Roses became the darlings of The Ball, so much to the point I cringe and sweep away “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child ‘o Mine” anytime they manifest. None of it can hold a candle to Appetite for Destruction deep cuts, “It’s So Easy,” “My Michelle” or “Think About You,” and I’ve embraced my minority opinion.

Like my peers of the day, I can bitch how watered down the halcyon Headbangers Ball became. I can also advocate MTV for giving multicultural bands like Living Colour, Bad Brains, Death Angel, Loudness, E-Z-O and Suicidal Tendencies a lot of love. Still, a reliable succession of video clips by industry icons Iron Maiden, Krokus, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest, Megadeth, Warlock, Queensryche, Overkill, Anvil, Metal Church, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Motorhead, Scorpions, Dokken, Heathen, Ratt, Madam X, Nuclear Assault and Testament soon turned into a commercial rock marathon. Defenders of the faith had to seek their true metal fix through a haze of Aqua Net and tight-bottomed female models, at times blocking the views of shredding arpeggios and tom rolls. Sex sells, it’s not just a business truism. Whitesnake rocked much of the time, but Tawny Kitaen, ’nuff said…

Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (my most hated song in the rock universe) and the stripper-worshipping Motley Crue prompted corporate record labels to sign limp-noodled, synth-driven hair rock which pushed the acts we were screaming for toward the back end of the two hour program. It’s no wonder Nirvana and Soundgarden became what they were; once Headbangers Ball lost its soul, the metal devout had to wait until the final 20 minutes of the show to see videos by genuine heavies like Prong, Sepultura, Ministry, Kreator, Saxon, Annihilator, Exodus, King Diamond, even goofballs like Killer Dwarfs, Dangerous Toys, Butthole Surfers and Scatterbrain.

The show queefed from a gaseous AOR virus more concerned with fueling the great party than the rock itself, and it wasn’t only grunge which bumped off Headbangers Ball and metal music for a spell. Its primary audience grew up and went to college or their future adult lives, many falling away from the scene until a nostalgic pining for love of grit brought them all back for a second run “death to false metal” crusade. With it came the short-lived metal-only channel, MTV X, then Jamey Jasta of the blistering Hatebreed, whose run as host of the revivified Headbangers Ball more than atoned for its poofy-haired sins. Sadly, Jasta and his successor, Jose Mangin, would be swept away with the monster, neo-inception of The Ball to a point of seeming finality. It was nice seeing modern underground metal icons like Enslaved, Fear Factory, Mastodon, Deftones, Between the Buried and Me, Static-X, Ishahn, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Unearth, All That Remains, Behemoth, Devildriver, Amorphis, Belphegor, High On Fire, Cradle of Filth, H.I.M., Keep of Kalessin, Norma Jean, Atreyu and their many likenesses have a near-mainstream habitat to make their cases for metal immortality.

Instead of grumbling about the show’s mistreatment over the years, I’d rather reflect on what it meant to me, personally. Maybe it rings true with others who were there. I can’t understate how important it was for me to be home at midnight every Saturday. I could be off in my estimation, but I believe I missed Headbangers Ball only thrice from 1987 through 1990, those being due to vacations away from home.

I was 17 in ’87 and conveniently my curfew was midnight. I was dating and working in a grocery store, hanging with friends well into the late hours. No matter what the activity, I had to be home for The Ball. I made sure my girlfriend was dropped off by 11:30 p.m., which kept me in good graces with her religious, conservative family, considering their daughter was then in love with a hairball. Any parties I was invited to, the same deal. I was out by 11:30, and only in one instance when everyone was lit up including my ride, I managed to talk my way into putting Headbangers Ball on the house t.v. to many people’s chagrin. A horns-up moment if there ever was one.

Movies, I usually went to on Friday nights with friends or my girlfriend. If it had to be a Saturday, I would go no later than a 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. showing. I was that obsessed with Headbangers Ball. I couldn’t get enough of hearing the samples of S.O.D.’s thrash cuts behind the title screens and commercial breaks before those changed to Prong. I taped the song videos, six VHS tapes worth. I was so OCD I wrote down each clip I’d recorded in a notebook so I wouldn’t have repeats. I’d watch them again during the weeknights I was off from work and summer days.

Stupidly, I did not record the interviews, which most people look at me like Wile E. Coyote with his jaw slamming to the ground after the Roadrunner tears away from him at hyperspeed when I confess to this. Yeah, Ray Van Horn, Jr., who would go on to interview many of the bands who appeared on Headbangers Ball, hadn’t taped one single show interview. When I think of how laced out Guns n’ Roses were on their debut appearance on The Ball, and how badly Dave Mustaine of Megadeth dicked wtih Riki Rachtman, I feel foolish. It was prime music television, a lost art.

I would make no bones in verbally pushing my folks out of the living room to surrender the t.v. to me for Headbangers Ball. As a father myself, I now shake my head and laugh at this memory of being such a royal pain to my parents. They would make a sport of it, waiting all the way until 11:59 p.m. before heading off to bed. It was so snarky and I would begin to shake with anticipation until that remote was in my hands and I heard S.O.D.’s “Milano Mosh” spool the show to life.

I can remember what joy it was to see MTV give more extreme bands like Slayer some play, then Morbid Angel, Coroner, Mercyful Fate, Dark Angel, Cryptic Slaughter, Destruction, Carcass, bands you had to really know the scene to appreciate. I also recall the day of abhorration when Celtic Frost’s “Cherry Orchards” premiered. Any dedicated metal fan was there and none of us will forget the abject terror of the moment. White Lion’s “Wait” was preferential. Well, maybe I’m getting carried away.

Up through high school graduation and my 18th birthday, I had many occasions where I would come home to catch Headbangers Ball and then go back out to meet my friends until 4:00 a.m. Everything changed in college, but I was still there, holding the torch and praying for a Voivod video that only seldom came.

Salad days, man…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

“Goodbye to Sandra Dee,” a poem by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Written for a friend of mine on the west coast who took the passing of Olivia Newton-John harder than most…

Goodbye to Sandra Dee

Ray Van Horn, Jr.

she hefts the burden of virtue  

on cardigan-covered shoulders

singing in lament, hardly in protest

against the stones thrown

from haughty wrists covered by hems of pink satin jackets

they jive their spite and their lowbrow pillow talk

from a tobacco-choked bedroom above

it’s a teenage despair we all feel, no matter our generation

Frankie Avalon can have high school all he wants

the squirrels, lazing in their nighttime tree hovels

are compelled to wake and divert

to the loft of her snowy, formless nightgown

and her snap case barrette, stamping her virginity

a flaxen seraph has broken the monotony

of the noisome, Ford and Elvis-bombed suburbia

they’re forced into co-existence with

even the crickets fall in love

all she wants is untainted love

marred only by the ambiguity

adulthood ‘round the corner brings

that, and the deliciousness of being furtive and naughty

with her Vitalis-slicked archangel-tramp

in his greaser’s sinning, grinning thunderbird pose

all hiding the latent moral fiber of Jimmy Stewart

their splendored summer affair purified

by the vast opportunity an ocean brings

crashed unto an unsatisfying ripple at an abandoned kiddie pool

which counsels the aches of her splintered heart

from dusty ponytail in a sex-starved drive-in

to redemption won on high heels at Prom

she morphs into an unexpected rock ‘n roll party queen

her gilded wings spread

then tangled, then at last, clipped

no turning back now

Graduation Day is coming

creamy, malt-colored clouds blanch,

beckoning the purge of her innocence

from the incinerated ashes of prudery

Sandy is reborn immortal

That Time Ray Interviewed Gerry Casale of Devo

In my 16 years writing in the music industry, I covered many genres, though metal and punk were my bread and butter. I was blessed to have interviewed more than 300 artists in my time on the scene. Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Rob Halford, Nicko McBrain, Marky Ramone, Nita Strauss, David Coverdale, Lita Ford, Doro Pesch, Glenn Danzig, Serj Tankian, Sebastian Bach, Otep, Ace Frehley, Dee Snider, Biff Byford, Jacoby Shaddix, just to name a few…

I was enjoying a ride through my portfolio of tear sheets from this gratifying period of my writing life, and I may throw a few scans here at Roads Lesser Traveled if readership interest is there.

For now, I want to share one of my favorite interview assignments ever, Gerry Casale of 80s new wave legends, Devo. I was always a fan of Devo back in the day and spun in my desk chair faster than one of the band’s spiraling energy dome hats when the offer was put before me. I bounced around my office singing the chorus of Devo’s stomping sociological rant, “Freedom of Choice.” “Freedom of choice…is what you got…freedom from choice…is what you want…”

I interviewed Gerry in 2011 for The Big Takeover as Devo had just released their superb comeback album, Something For Everybody. My chat on the phone with Gerry was one of the most memorable I’ve drawn in my career–and I’ve had a ton of memorable interview sessions done backstage, on tour buses, hotel rooms, in bars and restaurants and over the phone.

Gerry was there at the Kent State riot in 1970, the year I was born. You can’t wholly detect it in word, but over the phone, Gerry had a grim and somber recount of the event I’ll never forget. I even got Gerry to talk about Devo’s apperance on the short-lived 80s teen show Square Pegs, a beginning point for Sarah Jessica Parker.

Have a go with this enlightening chat with one of the all-time greats of counterculture music:

https://bigtakeover.com/interviews//bigtakeover.com/interviews/gerald-casale-of-devo-duty-again-for-the-future

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Don’t Forget Lightning Racer When Riding the Coasters at Hersheypark

We did a couple trips to Chocolatetown, USA, Hersheypark this summer to bust my son’s rollercoaster cherry. The first trip to Hershey, PA in June had its moments, but was at times a miserable affair on Father’s Day weekend due to crowding. Grub lines for Subway and the in-park fast food kiosks alone were taking up to 40 minutes, never mind an hour and a half for the Great Bear suspension coaster. The queue for the easygoing monorail was jammed up and there was as heavy contention for the oldie coasters like The Comet as there was for the newer steel rides. Chocolate World was people packed as well, and we found our consolation at missing out on line-stuffed rides with some of the most outrageous milkshakes we’ve ever had. I myself took down a flight of Hershey’s, Reese’s and strawberry Kit Kat mini-shakes. If that sounds insane, check it out:

For the June excursion, we got in Great Bear and the Sooper Dooper Looper, at one glorious time in the 1980s, the mack daddy coaster as the first looped ride on the east coast. Back then, you rode that sucker and got your “I Survived” t-shirt since it counted as bragging rights of fortitude at school. They still have those tees in their original design available for nostalgic saps in certain gift shops in the park. My son didn’t want the shirt, but he can claim the Sooper Dooper Looper (now in its 45th year) as his cherry popper.

Our second round to Hersheypark was on an August Wednesday, far more lucrative as we were able to hit seven coasters this time and other rides. Chocolate World was far more navigable and no obscene lines waiting to hit the chocolate factory riding tour like the prior visit. A S’mores milkshake was the tasty rage this time.

Finally able to get on board the other rides, we were wowed by the new Candymonium, Sky Rush and Jolly Rancher Remix along with Storm Runner and Fahrenheit, the latter of which takes you straight up and drops you at a 97 degree angle. My kiddo was cool as a cucumber on the rides, though he sweated with anticipation on Jolly Rancher Remix and he confessed to being terrified by Candymonium’s towering descents. We looked at each other with that rare moment of being on the same level, father and son, flat on our backs during the scary scooch up Fahrenheit.

I couldn’t get my son on The Comet, as he’d had the fear put inside of him that a wooden coaster has a tendency to lift you out of your seat. Never mind the daredevil antics of sidewiding, loops, corkscrews and whips we took from the steel coasters. As his father, I couldn’t not let the child experience the speed and adrenaline rush a classic wooden coaster delivers. I had to use some dad intuition and reverse psychology once we found our way to Lightning Racer.

Built in 2000, the Lightning Racer is Hersheypark’s barreling duel coaster, a huge deal when it was built alongside its fearsome wooden sister, Wildcat. To my dismay, Wildcat has been shut down permanently. As the name implies, two trains go out at the same time on Lightning Racer via two different tracks. One green, one red. Winner takes nothing except wind-pummeled hair and ten second braggadocio.

The coasters set off with red taking the higher incline than green, though both come down at 90 foot drops and a 3.6 G force. Paltry maybe compared to the blast launch of Storm Runner or the zip up the first ascension on Sky Rush, this is still a serious wallop for an old school-styled wooden coaster. Lightning Racer can give even the famous Cyclone at Coney Island, New York a good run, even in the brutality department. The Cyclone will leave bruises on you. Lightning Racer batters you around, dropping some happy licks you can pop ibuprofen for later.

The biggest thrill to Lightning Racer, winning over my skeptical son, was the number of times the trains intersect at top speed. The coasters dash close to each other and separate and wind back overtop each other until the rackety soar to the finish line. Bad form playing spoiler, I know, but anybody in the park who rides Lightning Racer will tell you; green always wins.

What makes Lightning Racer a road lesser traveled is one, the fact it’s planted in one of the furthest stretches in Hersheypark and two, the ease in which you can hop on with little-to-no wait.

Located in the park’s Midway, you have to push deep into the bowels of the campus from the main gates near Candymonium. Make your way over to the “Boardwalk” section of Hersheypark and keep veering past Breaker’s Edge Water Coaster. You’ll find the East Coast Waterworks and Tidal Force, themselves an entire afternoon’s worth of wet frivolity. Once you spot the Hersheypark ferris wheel, you’ll find Lightning Racer right behind it.

My son and I got on Lightning Racer twice in a fifteen minute span, riding the red train first, then the green. The lines move so fast, one because most everyone lurks in the ride zones within reach of Chocolate World or at Hersheypark’s ZooAmerica. Also because the trains are loaded with such expedience you’re forced into a split second decision which side to ride. Treat yourself and take both colors at least once, even if you’re on the red side and subjected to sneering faces, mocking gesticulations and blown raspberries from the green train. Hop back on and return the favor from the other perspective!

Wooden coasters may be considered out of fashion to some, but even on our second round at Hersheypark, the line for The Comet was bigger than its dwarfing yellow steel neighbor, Sky Rush, one of the highest and fastest coasters in the park. A classic is a classic.

If an old-time thrill is what you’re seeking, hit the Comet, yes. It’s mandatory. Then grab a packet of Hershey kisses for the schlep to Lightning Racer. You won’t be sorry you did, and you’ll have already finished it long before the Fahrenheit riders get within reach of the loading bay.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

A Near-Forgotten Crap Classic of Horror Featuring Vanna White, of All People: Graduation Day (1981)

The Eighties were a glorious time in many aspects, in particular for horror flicks. The upper echelon of 1980s horror would include The Shining, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Re-Animator, Hellraiser, Fright Night, The Return of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Near Dark, The Changeling and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

However, for true horror geeks living the decade, it’s the dreck and the slime from the Grade B tiers which give afiaciandos their mutant verve. The Toxic Avenger certainly qualifies as a beloved crap classic of the era. Depending on your propensity for gratuitous gore or outright stupidity, there are hundreds of schlock films which seasoned horror pros are wont to devour like a canister of sour cream and onion Pringles. They may be new titles to you, but if you had a VCR or cable t.v. in its infancy years, tell me you don’t remember the likes of The Boogens, The Burning, Wolfen, Basket Case, Puppet Master, Prophecy, I Spit On Your Grave, Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, Hell Night, Visiting Hours, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Motel Hell, Happy Birthday to Me, Pieces, Maniac, Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly, The Prowler, The Spawning, Piranha and Sleepaway Camp. The latter came to play, dropping the most gonzo, discomfiting sucker punch ending of any genre. Not to mention a hilarious roast of Eighties horror in its sequel, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.

Back in the day, I devoured these films, many on local UHF and VHF channels from the days of dialed knob channel selection and rabbit ear antennae. Sometimes, one of the local network stations would run a horror or kung fu flick after the 11:00 p.m. news, but most often horror was king in the static-filled VHF tundra of our Ghost Host and Creature Feature Saturday night horrorthons. If you’re familiar with Svengoolie on MeTV, it’s a blissfully corny taste of what used to be lifestyle, though Sven’s had an enormous run through his two portrayers.

The Eighties were perpetually suffering a case of sequelitis in film, most guilty in horror. Much of it was terrible instead of terrifying, looking at you, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, The Howling II: Your Sister’s a Werewolf and Jaws: The Revenge. Much of it was about not so much building a better Halloween and Friday the 13th, but only to lure horny teenagers to the cinema for cash grab Friday night thrills. If you were lucky, you were grabbing something else during and after the movie.

Of all the countless slasher ripoffs to come down the pike, one putrid pile of crap stands out for me, and I’m a chump sucker for it like I am a Puffy Amiyumi song, hating myself in both cases: 1981’s Graduation Day.

I played my original copy on VHS tape back in the day nearly as much as Friday the 13th Part IV. Comparable in the sleaze and dead brain cell department, yet the latter far outshines in special effects as one of gore master Tom Savini’s masterworks. I played Graduation Day over and over until the tape split in my machine. Then I bought another one, despite its shoddy film grade, ridiculous plot, overuse of a primary film location for many of the kills, perverted teachers, a pathetic attempt to create a Whodunit with implausible suspects…and yet the damn thing still manages to pull off a dandy surprise ending.

For no good reason, I get lured in by that cheesy post-disco synth track by Lance Owg, Gabriel Rohels and David Cole, “The Winner,” in the opening montage setting up our story of carnage. It doesn’t take long to get into the film’s nasty business. That globby synthpop is so awful, it’s so Troma, as in the later reissuer of the film. Troma, a revered peddler of trash couture which put Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz on the subcultural map with the Toxic Avenger films, Class of Nuke ’em High, Mother’s Day, Rabid Grannies and Bloodsucking Freaks.

Then there’s that sloppy (but damned infectious), riff-o-matic, piano-hammering “Gangster Rock” song from who-the-hell-knows-what-happened-to-them band, Felony. I’m always laying in wait for their marathon skate jam stretched through a stalk ‘n slash sequence for nearly as long as a quad of Tales from Topographic Oceans. Like the film itself, “Gangster Rock” doesn’t know when to quit, and still that caterwauling chorus just won’t leave me be for days after I hit it.

Graduation Day is the saucy, nerdy, naive, amateurish, sleazo by-product of its time. Expect the customary boob pops (especially from a younger Linnea Quigley, one of the era’s most loved scream queens), expect cheesy decapitations and laughably staged stabbings. Graduation Day has the singlehanded, most ludicrous kill scene of the decade with dual jockster Ralph (Carl Rey) being impaled by his own football. I’ll let you watch to decipher the logistics of such nonsense.

Vanna White, game show icon, can you imagine the sight of her in a turd bucket horror film? It’s true! In Graduation Day, you’ll find Vanna as a hemming, hawing and screeching filler teen named Doris. Hey, Kevin Bacon began his path in the original Friday the 13th. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, right?

When Midtown High School elite sprinter, Laura Ramstead, dies of a cardiac embolism while winning a track event at the bombastic hollering of her coach, George Michaels (Christopher George), a series of murders then rains down upon her track teammates. Why is anyone’s guess, only that we’re led to believe her irritable coach is the head culprit, given our killer, donned in sweats, black gloves and a fencing helmet, takes down the victims in a forced time of thirty seconds. Many of the murders are shown with a ticking stopwatch hitting that same mark, the same footage used in the beginning of the film (c’mon, man!) depicting Coach Michaels’ brutal pushing of Laura to win so hard it ushers her unexpected death.

Flash forward, we pick up with Midvale’s graduation only days away. Laura’s sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie), comes home from her naval station in Guam to accept Laura’s diploma on the family’s behalf. This after fending off the advances of a lecherous truck driver (looking suspiciously like porn star Ron Jeremy in an ascot – cough cough, laughter prevails) and then a skirmish with Anne’s despicable stepfather.

Laura’s boyfriend, Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy) hasn’t let the torch burn out for his lady love, which should be enough of a hint, but credit where it’s due. One of the film’s more clever maneuvers is to play up Kevin’s chivalry, then disappear from him with only a few random drops back into the story. Smoke and mirrors using the rest of the cast and the subplot of Anne seeking atonement from Coach Michaels leads to an unforgettable danse macabre at the film’s finale.

Graduation Day was made back then for a meager $250,000.00 and the production shows, especially through its dreadful lighting and choppy cutaway-flash scenes. Its only moment of grace comes in the beautifully shot and executed scene of gymnast-track star Sally’s (Denise Cheshire) elegant routine on the asymmetrical bars. For all of its faults and eyesores, Graduation Day took in $24 million at the box office in the spring of 1981, quantifying it as a smash for its time. While rightfully panned by crtitics, the Herb Freed-directed slasher has hedged a loyal cult audience over time which is rebuilding through fans finding value in the film’s CGI-less, old school effects motif to convey the rampage.

Graduation Day is a hot mess of an indie horror film making the most of its shamelessness, and it keeps coming back for evaluation every generation or so. I remember first watching a cut version on the 11:30 Late Movie on WBAL, Baltimore Channel 11. Even after two copies on videotape, I later snagged Graduation Day on DVD, never paying more than $7.00 for any unit.

There’s something I just love about this turkey aside from what I’ve already mentioned. The graduating class in this film marks a transition into my own. I was 11 when Graduation Day came out and the whole high school world seemed a different palette in comparison to this one when I myself graduated in 1988. Midvale High is stocked with the same jocks, preppies, dorks, perverts, potheads, music fiends, nouveau riche, dickswingers and ordinary wallflowers as my own group who went four years of public high school together. Longer hair was generally a more accepted norm in the Midvale-verse than my time in high school. A Beatles mural can be seen in the hallways of Midvale High ’81. Something very similar seven years later was found in my writing teacher, Paul Day’s classroom.

There’s something oddly comforting to the whole lunatic thing, all the way to the funky fadeout music of Graduation Day, which haunts my ears frequently like my eyes the sight of Laura’s capped and gowned cadaver.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.