School’s Out: horror meets reality
Reality can be horror these days. Earlier this month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated 12 years left on the ticking global warming time bomb. Even putting the impending environmental catastrophe aside, the sense that we’re all trundling along a road to disaster, no exit in sight, is unshakeable. I don’t even know how many times I’ve tweeted about the void since 2016. We can’t deny that this planet is sick in both body and soul, but if I sound slightly too cynical, at least I’m not alone with the feeling. In the well-crafted but ultimately unsatisfying School’s Out, pre-apocalyptic anxiety swallows a French town.
The first thing we see is the sun. Its rays beat down on the prestigious Saint Joseph school, where a teacher stares upwards into the blinding light. Amidst the oppressive silence and sweat, he throws himself to the ground below, and students scramble to gasp at his broken body. The six who remain staring from the classroom window, seemingly unaffected, are a peculiar and hostile group. Having settled some distance between themselves and their less academically-gifted classmates, the most precocious of the students dismiss even their teachers with ease. While the dynamic is somewhat comedic at first, their entrapment in a world they obviously consider themselves above is a compelling distortion of traditional teen angst. It soon becomes clear that it’s bred by some form of intense pessimism – Earth is screwed, and they’re smart enough to see that much too clearly.
Summer is usually bloated with never-endings and possibility, but in School’s Out, teenage kicks adopt an air of finality and resignation. As the title suggests, director Sébastien Marnier forgoes the slow-burn, light-hearted magic of summer in the suburbs and instead lingers on a series of brutal, banal acts; through murky green and yellow hues, in what seem to be disturbing training exercises, the clique pull plastic bags over their heads and test their breath for too long under the waters of a swimming pool. Pierre, substitute teacher and our rather bland outsider, is left to observe their workings. Between studying Kafka (of course), he veers on obsession with their secret before plunging his own life into chaos.
What School’s Out boasts is a convincing atmosphere of heightened unease, where teacher turns victim, children take control, and danger is just around the corner for both generations. Its entanglement with the world as we know it affords the film some further character: flashes of animal slaughter, a bird with waste plugging its belly, and of course, the face of Donald Trump all make their appearance to prove that we too should be afraid of the future. The blare of alarms through the school, during a shooter drill, is another hallmark of 21st century terror that makes the cut, while a power plant becomes a sinister presence. The themes and tropes of our own reality are reflected as horror motifs, making for the final product of a contemporary purgatorial vision. School’s Out, then, brings grief for our future to the surface, and it’s refreshing to see the disillusionment of specifically young people at the narrative’s core.
More obvious genre conventions, too, are also put to good use. Bugs invade Pierre’s bathroom, “radiation” seems to charge madness amongst his peers, and nightmares blur into daytime. While one foot remains in the present, one is firmly set in the dark of another world. A creative use of music strengthens this stance; while the school choir’s chants give voice to social commentary, Zombie Zombie’s electronic 80s-horror score echoes the supernatural. The building hysteria, presented through a mishmash of reality and unreality, is an enjoyable and curious watch.
But inevitably, School’s Out deflates along the way. Following a rapid loosening of pace and plot, the intrigue and tension of its opening chapters had worn into irritation by the final act. We may share their fears, but it’s difficult to empathise with these pretty unlikeable kids – something the climax rests on. The alien wavelength that has been so well curated means School’s Out fails to pack the final emotional punch it appears to be aim for. Rather fittingly in light of the film’s nihilistic tone, the question of why I should care is what I was left to sit with; though well-executed for the most part, there didn’t seem to be much point to it all in the end. Whether or not that was the intention, it wound up being a little disappointing.