Divine Comedy: Richard Gabai Talks Virgin High (1991) & Hot Under The Collar (1992)

Dave hits up the Schlock Pit fav for the inside scoop on his two clerical comedies.

In his valentine to David DeCoteau’s Nightmare Sisters (1988), The Schlock Pit’s very own Matty Budrewicz described it as “the quintessential text in the bodacious B-movie Scream Queen epoch that saw filmmakers such as DeCoteau, Fred Olen Ray, and Jim Wynorski litter the scare section of video stores the U.S over.” Indeed, the film cemented the status of Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer – but less celebrated is the influence that Nightmare Sisters had on an ambitious twenty-three year old actor and musician called Richard Gabai.

“Dave hired me to star in that movie,” remembers Gabai. “Then afterwards at the wrap party, I asked him how much the movie cost. He told me $40,000 [1]. So I said to myself, “Hey, raise $40,000 and make your own movie!” So yes, Nightmare Sisters inspired me. I went home and I wrote Assault of the Party Nerds (1989) on a typewriter over a weekend, raised $40,000 by getting $4,000 from ten investors, and then I was off to the races.” [1]

Watching it now, Assault of the Party Nerds certainly feels like a stepping stone, with Gabai writing, producing and directing a fun, if slight, frat-house frolic in the tradition of Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Animal House (1978). For Gabai though, such a set-up was the most organic way to begin his filmmaking career.

“Yeah, those two movies were very influential to me. It suited where I was in life. I was twenty-three, fresh out of college, and I had literally just lived all of that. That’s what I knew! So, to be honest, I think it was right for me as a performer, and it was ideal for my writing at that time.”

Unquestionably. Released in the summer of ’89 courtesy of Prism Entertainment, Assault of the Party Nerds did good business on VHS – so much so that Gabai found himself represented by legendary agent Fred Amsel. A World War II infantry veteran, Amsel began as a comedian before repping the likes of Janet Leigh and Vic Tayback, and one of his first acts with Gabai was the simple exercise of crossing the road to visit some Hollywood mogul types.

“Fred walked me across Wilshire Boulevard from his office to Menahem Golan’s office at 21st Century Film Corporation. Menahem watched the first ten minutes of Party Nerds and agreed to finance my next film, Virgin High, to the tune of $150,000. Then, as soon as it was finished, he sold it to Columbia Pictures for $750,000!  Not bad, huh?! [laughs].”

VIRGIN HIGH (1991) introduces us to the unforgettable Jerry Kaminski (Gabai, natch): a lovable dweeb whose girlfriend, Christy (Tracy Dali), is sent away to the Academy of the Blessed Virgin by her uptight Dad (Burt Ward – “That’s IT young lady, you’re going to Catholic school!”) in order to protect her from Jerry’s increasingly amorous advances (“I was half a heartbeat away from the valley of the Ultra-Vixen!”). Not that these tough tactics do anything to dissuade the insatiable Jerry. If anything, they’re more of a challenge – and rounding up support from his faithful friends Zoomer (Jeff Bowser) and Theo (Kent Burden), Jerry sets out to free Christy from her celibacy inflicted hell.

There’s a moment in Virgin High when Jerry infiltrates the school while kitted out as a priest called ‘Father Guus’ (“It’s Dutch”), and it’s here where you’ll realise whether your sense of humour falls in line with Gabai’s or not. For me, I find his shtick incredibly endearing. Though Gabai’s bawdier influences are clear, his comedy work leans towards more wholesome terrain. It’s imbued with a warm and decidedly old school lilt, eschewing excessive smut in favour of just mucking around with pals. Yes, Virgin High is unapologetically juvenile – but it’s also an infectiously likeable portrait of a lad in his mid-twenties, in full control of every aspect of his movie, and having the absolute time of his life in the process.

The film’s sequel, HOT UNDER THE COLLAR (1992), followed soon after, with Golan striking a deal based solely upon seeing a handful of stills from Virgin High. In Hot Under the Collar, Jerry is back – and he’s faced with the improbably similar scenario of trying to get his new girlfriend Monica (Melinda Clarke) out from a convent following a hypnosis experiment that went wrong. This time, however, there’s the added complication of a mob boss (Buddy Daniels Friedman) and some stolen diamonds, with both Bowser and Burden returning as Zoomer and Theo to add their dorky assistance to Jerry’s latest quest.

Hot Under the Collar is more meta than its predecessor. There are a handful of winks to the camera, like Sherry (Karman Kruschke) fretting over an inappropriate thought, “I was thinking about Mel Gibson”, only for Monica to come back with, “It’s fine. I was thinking about Menahem Golan.” There’s also a deliciously loopy moment when Yung Henry Yu/’Bruce Ly’ roundhouse kicks into a shot, only to pause for a moment and discuss with Gabai what set he should be on.

Inseparable in terms of quality and enjoyment, Gabai’s clerical comedies are both bolstered by an experienced crew, with the presence of DeCoteau alumni Howard Wexler (cinematographer) and Royce Mathew (production design) crucial. Let’s not forget the music either: there are a dozen or so tracks from Gabai’s band, The Checks, woven throughout their soundtracks which serve as nice reminder of what a great singer-songwriter the multihyphenated talent is, too.

As for there scripts, Gabai did some uncredited work on Virgin High, and Hot Under the Collar was co-written by ‘Jerry Kaminski’. The lead writer, however, was ‘Jeff Neill’: a man with only two features to his credit, and a name that Gabai is happy to confirm is a pseudonym – but not who for.

“Yeah, that’s a pen name for a writer-director I had worked for as an actor. He’d attended Catholic school and wanted to stay undercover, so I was happy to oblige. His scripts were great, though, and collaborating with him was great.”

Considering four of Gabai’s first five directing gigs were nerd-centric frat-coms [2], it’s impressive that his subsequent filmmaking career has seen him venture into so many different genres, from thrillers and erotica (Vice Girls (1996) and Virtual Voyeur (2001)), to family flicks and Hallmark Christmas romps (The Bike Squad (2005) and A Gingerbread Romance (2018)). Back in the early ‘90s, such a feat might have seemed impossible, with the danger of being typecast a real probability. Gabai, mind, sees his career as more of an evolution:

“I have never felt pigeonholed. I’ve always been grateful for the work I’ve been offered, and it hasn’t always been comedy. For sure, I am blessed beyond words to continue to make a great living in the arts. I’ve never had a real job, and I have a feeling the best is yet to come. I’m getting roles from a new generation of directors. Fred Ray’s son, Chris, hired me last year to play a psycho hit man in Assault on Station 33 (2021). It was a blast, literally!”

All we need now is to break into the MGM vault and get Virgin High and Hot Under the Collar on Blu-ray.

[1] DeCoteau has since admitted the film’s budget was actually $8,000.
[2] The other two are the horror-comedy Blood Nasty (1989), which Gabai co-directed with Robert Strauss, and the self-explanatory Assault of the Party Nerds 2: The Heavy Petting Detective (1995).

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