Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Student Body (1976)

Directed by Gus Trikonis
Starring June Fairchild, Jillian Kesner, Janice Heiden
Rated R
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The Student Body opens in explosive grindhouse fashion, with an all-out, hair-yanking, eye-gouging cat fight in the laundry room of a woman's prison. That's sort of a weird place for a movie about college girls to start, but who's gonna argue?

Turns out that the local college is conducting a sociological experiment. The warden (Thomas Eberle, clearly slumming it from his gig on the Edge of Night soap opera) does a terrible job of explaining what the experiment is actually about, but the upshot is, the three main brawlers from the laundry room melee get to go to college for a semester. If they don't kill anybody or burn the place down, they get paroled. Sounds too easy, right? Well, strap in, sleaze-beasts. Evil is afoot.

Dr. Blalock (still-kicking TV actor Warren Stevens, looking here like a boozy ex-boxer) is the college prof behind the experiment. He picks three of his male students to keep an eye on the jailbirds. Two of them look like Vanilla Fudge roadies. The other dude looks like Fred from Scooby Doo. The Fred guy says, "Says here my girl is prone to violent outbursts and...pranks! Sir, I bruise easy!"
Dr. Blalock assures him everything'll be alright. And then he rushes off, because the girls are about to arrive. They will, of course, be staying at the venerable professor's gigantic mansion.

The girls arrive and meet the prof's fancy-pants wife Connie (Judith Roberts, the crazy ghost lady from Dead Silence) and his scuzzball son Carter (Peter Hooten, from Inglorious Bastards, among a zillion other Italian b-flicks). Right off the bat, the girls are snotty:
Mrs. Blalock: "So, what should I call you, then?"
Carrie (Julian Kessner): "You can call me a cab."
Mrs. Blalock: "Very well then, you're a cab."

The good doctor gives his rowdy charges some pills, tells 'em they gotta take them every day. Apparently, they'll "ease the anxiety of taking classes and meeting the students."
"Doc," says Chicago (Janice Heiden), "Have you ever been to jail? I'm pretty sure we can handle college."

Yeah well, wait 'til those goofballs kick in, smartass.

Later on, there's a very Starsky and Hutch style meeting between Dr. Blalock and some sweaty bearded guy, where they discuss the experiment. Some bullshit about side effects and the military. Whatever. That night, the professor throws a party for the girls. Mitzi (June Fairchild, aka the Ajax Lady from Up in Smoke!) strips naked and jumps in the pool. I sort of expected something a little wilder, but bare-ass is bare-ass. Everybody else jumps in, too. It's a pretty fun party.

Next day, the girls take a whirlpool. There is no reason for this scene except to show their tits. Bravo, Mr. Trikonis. Afterwards they sit around tossing dice and talking about dudes.
"Phil's got big feet," notes Chicago.
"What's that mean?" asks Carrie.
"It means he's got a big ding dong," says Mitzi.
Does this sound like the kind of conversation hardened criminals would have?

When the girls go to bed, it's revealed that they're being watched by some fat fucker in the basement. He's got a row of TV monitors in there. From the beads of sweat rolling down his neck, it looks like he's enjoying the gig.

The girls start their first week of college, and right off the bat, their behavior seems to be changing. Carrie gets smart all of a sudden, Chicago turns into a violent, sex-obsessed maniac and Mitzi - who was goofy enough as it is - starts ranting about penguins. Despite all this, Dr. Blalock lets the girls out for a night on the town, and it turns into an orgy of crime. Mitzi smashes a store window with a garbage can and steals a giant stuffed penguin.

Chicago tries to rape this dude and then gets into a righteous back-alley cat fight with the dude's girlfriend, almost drowning her in a barrel.
"Christ," Chicago says, as they make a quick escape, "I'm freaked."

The next day Carrie gets up in the middle of class and starts raving about society. She picks up the teacher's ashtray and whips it against the wall and says, "Can't you see? I'm you! I'm the student body!" And then she runs away. It's pretty awesome.

Back at the mansion, Dr Blalock is lamenting his involvement in this whole mess. "The girls are going slowly mad," he grouses to his wife. He takes a gulp of brandy. "And you smell like a French whore."

Anyways, since Carrie is a super-genius, she figures out who's behind this nefarious experiment, but not before Mitzi bashes a guy's head in with an ashtray. Things get progressively more nihilistic, but fear not: it all ends with giggling and a hummable soft-rock number.

One the one hand, The Student Body is guilty of the classic drive-in bait and switch: the poster clearly pushes the T&A angle, but the boobs-baring is abandoned twenty minutes in as the film settles into a TV movie-esque action-drama. But given the natural beauty of the three leads and the exploitation flick pedigree of its creators, trash-fiends will have little to complain about, really.

Director Gus Trikonis began his career as an actor in the early 60's. He appeared in West Side Story, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and in '67 biker flick The Hellcats, among others, before switching to the other side of the camera for a long and eventful career in directing. His early directorial efforts are pure, hi-octane trash: Five the Hard Way (1969), Supercock, The Swinging Barmaids (both 1975), The Student Body, Moonshine County Express (1977), The Evil (1978). By the end of the 70's, he had settled comfortably into television movies and episodes, and his propensity for the genre is obvious even here, from the cars-crashing-through-boxes to the cheeseball cue music (bongos, trumpet blasts, acid-rock guitar). Its' bubblegummy stuff, for sure, but peppered with loony characters and layered with mid 70's grit. The script was written by Hubert Smith, who had a brief but eventful career as a screenwriter. Besides this and very entertaining John Saxon/Claudia Jennings hicksploitationer Moonshine County Express, he wrote 1978's Night Creature (AKA Devil Cat), a man-versus-nature nail-biter that pits a bug-eyed Donald Pleasance against a seemingly unkillable black panther, and the infamous Rosy Grier groaner The Glove (1979), about a nutty ex-con with a giant metal glove that can smash cars into bits. I like the way this guy thinks. Too bad he hasn't written a script for thirty years. But you just know he's out there somewhere, thinking up some crazy shit.

All three of the lead cons-cum-college students give credible performances, especially in light of how silly the premise is. Jillian Kessner, the smart one, pulled off the brains n' beauty bit admirably. The Student Body was her acting debut, and she went on to have a pretty steady career in television - she even appeared in the legendary, canceled-after-one-episode Animal House rip-off Coed Fever (1979). Unfortunately, she died from Leukemia in 2007.

Janice "Chicago" Heiden also had a lucrative run as a television character actor, but dropped out of the business in the mid-1980's.

Easily the most memorable actress of the three was June Fairchild, who essayed the role of penguin-centric Mitzi with a convincing mad-woman gleam in her eye. June's acting career was relatively brief, but quite eventful. From weirdo sports-murder flick Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) to blaxploitation classic Detroit 9000 (1973), from the Monkees' freak-flick Head(1968), to Cheech and Chong's stoner epic Up in Smoke (1978), Fairchild had all the makings of a cult star. But her film appearances dried up abruptly at the end of the 70's, and she wasn't heard from again until 2001, when it was reported in the Los Angeles press that she had fallen on hard times over the years, suffering a crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol. She had served time in jail and was, at the time the story was written, homeless.

But, just as Mitzi did in The Student Body, Fairchild rallied at the last minute. With a little help from her friends (including Clint Eastwood, who she co-starred with in 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), she bested her demons and turned her life around. We are still awaiting her inevitable comeback, but until then, there's always the penguin incident.

And, of course, the Ajax Lady.

Availability: The Student Body is available on VHS.
Buy The Student Body on Amazon.
-Ken McIntyre

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