A notch above most Young Adult thrillers thanks to its author’s dryly humorous tone, Deadly Detention is a playful riff on school-set slasher movies that whistles along swiftly and keeps up the suspense to the end.
Think back to the 1985 John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll remember a lot of teenage bonding and not nearly enough severed heads. Writer Eric Weiner rectifies the problem by putting six high school students into evening detention and ensuring that staying popular isn’t their main concern – but staying alive.
There’s Glen, the nice-but-dim star athlete of Harrison High, who’s wound up staying late after being caught in a steamy make-out session with senior year bitch, Jaclyn – also in detention. Then there’s chunky nice girl Jill, still carrying the pack of cigarettes that got her into trouble, and equally geeky Owen, who’s landed a late shift thanks to a below-par term paper. Perpetual troublemaker Mike rounds out the group, while straight-A scholar Fran is a surprise addition, having been accused of stealing another girl’s wallet.
“Chill out, guys. I have detention all the time. It’s not so bad,” Mike reassures the gang, but they haven’t counted on being supervised by the school’s strictest teacher, Mr Crowley. And what Crowley has in mind isn’t quiet study but hard graft, scrubbing the classroom clean while he retires to the staff room for an hour. But 5.15 comes and goes. Along with 6.15. And soon the school is dark, the parking lot deserted, and no one else seems to be around. Until the deadly threats start spewing out of the loudspeaker system, that is, and the students realize they’re locked in the school with the windows barred, the phone lines cut, and a maniac out for blood…
Several 80s slashers utilized high school settings as the backdrop for their killings, with Fatal Games and Cutting Class making particularly good use of the sneaking-back-in-at-night conceit. Prom Night and The Slumber Party Massacre both have great after-school sequences, in which usually jam-packed hallways turn sinister once the crowds have deserted, but Deadly Detention is the only slasher tale to my knowledge to explicitly use detention as a reason to isolate its victims. And very effective it is too, meaning that most of the characters don’t even really know each other before ending up fighting for their lives, and allowing plenty of scope for character development as each explains the problems that led to their punishment, as well as their hopes for the future if they ever make it out alive.
Pacing isn’t a problem since, even though it’s the usual halfway-mark before the action kicks in, Weiner sends the group scurrying through every part of the school building, penning shock scenes that range from the basketball court to the library with an aplomb that screams “make this movie!”. Indeed, later films have used elements already given a thorough workout here, from the climax of Scream with its heroine unable to trust any of her former friends, to Horror 101, which lifts almost the entire set-up but does manage to come up with a nice twist of its own.
Published in 1994, the fashions described in Deadly Detention are very early-90s, but these only add to its charm. Because that’s what the book has in spades: good, honest likeability that keeps you hooked all the way to a pleasing pay-off. Well worth staying after school for.