2 Cool For School: Demolition High (1996) & Demolition University (1997)

Matty looks back at Jim Wynorski’s nifty, Corey Haim-starring action flicks.

After wrapping his excellent remake of The Wasp Woman (1995) for mentor Roger Corman, and amidst a change in market demand, Jim Wynorski shifted his attention from horror and erotic thrillers to the next big trend, to a genre that’s yielded some of his richest fruit: action. Produced under his own Sunset Films International banner — the shingle he co-founded alongside B-movie renaissance man Andrew Stevens and CineTel bigwig Paul Hertzberg in 1994 — Wynorski’s first bullet-sprayed extravaganza was DEMOLITION HIGH (1996). And while it’s neither the best of Wynorski’s Sunset slate (that’s Sorceress (1995) and Storm Trooper (1998)) nor the prolific auteur’s finest action flick (that’s a tie between his stock footage epics Militia (2000) and Gale Force (2002), and, again, Storm Trooper), Demolition High is a nifty ‘Die Hard (1988) in a school’ programmer anchored by a charismatic performance from the late Corey Haim.

A handful on set (according to Wynorski, the troubled teen heartthrob, who received an executive producer credit as part of his deal, had to have a paid chaperone with him at all times), Haim and his awful pudding bowl haircut star as new kid in town Lenny. A charming smart-mouth, Lenny’s arrival at his new school coincides with the campus being taken over by a gang of terrorists led by the nasty Luther (Jeff Kober) — and as the authorities gather outside, it’s naturally up to Lenny and a couple of stragglers who’ve managed to avoid being held hostage in the auditorium to save the day.

Assembled in such a consummately professional way that you actually believe the diminutive Haim capable of kicking scary First Power (1990) villain Kober’s arse in its rousing finale, Demolition High is a diverting riff on McTiernan-indebted heroics full of zingy prattle and some primo scene-chewing from a game supporting cast. Alan Thicke adds a touch of class as Lenny’s noble police chief Dad, and his to and fro dynamic with Stacie Randall’s far less empathetic fed is the crux of the dramatic tension; Thicke wanting to spare as many people as possible, Randall, reuniting with Wynorski following Ghoulies IV (1994), happy to break a few eggs and increase the body count if it means bringing Luther to justice. Providing jocular pomp are Wynorski stock players Jay Richardson, Arthur Roberts, and Peter Spellos — the latter getting a nice Porky’s (1981)-type moment early doors, when, through a misunderstanding, his security guard character catches an unwitting Lenny inadvertently  peeping on the girls’ locker room. The revelation, mind, is Wynorski’s muse Melissa Brasselle. Clad in a slinky black number and toting a whopping great Desert Eagle, Brasselle is brilliant in her plum henchwoman role, and Wynorski presents her as a sexy-dangerous force to be reckoned with. In short, she rightly deserves her central spot on the film’s second U.S. video cover [1]. 

A film of tremendous energy, Wynorski imbues Demolition High with a strong sense of pace. Employing fluid Steadicam work, Wynorski ensures not a minute goes by without something happening, be it a bit of scripter Steve Jankowski’s snappy, speech bubble dialogue or a burst of running, scrapping, and gunfire. Lit and shot by frequent Wynorski collaborator Zoran Hochstatter, aesthetically speaking Demolition High boasts a bright, vibrant, Saved by the Bell-esque sheen that gives it an impressive eye-popping quality; a sort of stylised exaggerated reality that counters the fact that, really, in this day and age, a film in which machine-gun wielding baddies attack a school isn’t quite the fanciful, escapist piece of entertainment it used to be…

Pre-sold at the 1995 Cannes Film Market in the same Sunset package as Vampirella (1996) and the sadly unmade ‘Hard Bounty II’, Demolition High was lensed in fall of that year and debuted on VHS in Germany in May 1996 before hitting American video four months later, on 10th September, via Cabin Fever Entertainment Inc. [1]. Curiously, Demolition High didn’t get released here in the U.K. — but its sequel, the Kevin S. Tenney-helmed DEMOLITION UNIVERSITY (1997), did. However, with Demolition University making no mention of previous events, it’s easy to see why British distro Warner Home Video would unleash it as a standalone when they acquired it and three other Sunset joints — Vampirella, Storm Trooper, and Against the Law (1997) — at the turn of the millennium. 

More what we’d now call a soft reboot than a sequel, Tenney’s agreeable, Wynorski-produced faux-continuation is pretty much a carbon copy of Demolition High with a smattering of tweaks to mask the (admittedly very welcome) deja vu. For example, in Demolition University, the terrorists are an Arabic cell in cahoots with Tenney regular Todd Allen’s hacked-off U.S. army dissenter, and the action instead unfolds in a water plant that Haim — the film’s sole holdover, and seemingly stricken with amnesia — and his classmates happen to be visiting when it’s commandeered.

Discounting the fact that it features the most suspiciously old-looking ‘teens’ in movie history, Demolition University is a tasty slice of matinee fodder. Eschewing Demolition High’s Day-Glo palette in favour of a duskier, autumnal vibe, Tenney fosters a slightly gritter atmosphere and demonstrates his usual stylistic moxie in several stirringly fashioned set pieces — specifically during Demolition University’s incredibly exciting last quarter (the full body burn gag is money). What truly strikes, though, is how the Night of the Demons (1988) director manages to keep the film moving even in the face of a noticeably weaker screenplay than its predecessor [3]. Sourpusses might think Tenney freewheeling; to me, it’s masterly, jazz-tinged improvisation. 

[1] Demolition High was reissued on VHS in the U.S. by Artisan on 19th June 2001.
[2] Supposedly, the returning Jankowski’s script was in poor shape and had to be rewritten on the fly by an irate Wynorski in order to get the project into a shootable state.

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