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I’ll never forget my very first horror convention, which I attended over 10 years ago in Maryland. I remember instantly feeling at home when I walked into the Hunt Valley Inn for HorrorFind Weekend, as the hotel was swarming with people I immediately felt a strong bond with. It was clear that they were “my people,” and it was the first time I was actually able to physically interact with fans who loved the same things I loved; this was a pleasure that the internet forums I was part of at the time simply did not allow.
But before the internet was a thing, and prior to being aware that horror conventions even existed, I really had nobody to share my horror fandom with. I developed a love for monsters and madmen at a pretty young age, thanks in no small part to the Goosebumps books and Nightmare on Elm Street films, and there was a period of time where I was convinced that there simply weren’t others like me. If there were, they sure didn’t seem to be sitting beside me in school, while I daydreamed about Freddy turning people into roaches.
I suppose my first sense of the so-called “horror community” that I would eventually become part of came many years prior to that inaugural convention outing, and it came from a highly unexpected source. I remember being up late one night (sometime in the ’90s, I can be sure) and catching Carl Reiner’s Summer School on TV, a 1987 comedy about a super cool high school gym teacher (Mark Harmon) who gets in way over his head when he’s forced to teach a summer class to a bunch of misfits.
Those who have seen the movie surely know where I’m going with this, but two of those slacker students in the film are best friends Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp and Dave Frazier – played by Dean Cameron and Gary Riley. Though it’s fairly common to see nowadays in both movies and television shows, Summer School was/is incredibly special to me because it was the first time I ever actually saw my own horror fandom represented on screen.
We initially meet Chainsaw and Dave in an opening credits montage sequence, where they’re standing in front of their lockers and playing around with fake body parts. The insides of the lockers are decorated with images from Dawn of the Dead, The Fly, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, establishing right off the bat that Chainsaw and Dave share a defining character trait: they’re horror fans, loud and proud.
And it’s their love of horror that makes Summer School something of a horror movie itself.
In Summer School, a comedy by way of a slasher film, Chainsaw and Dave’s shared love of the genre actually becomes an integral part of the movie’s storyline. Practical effects aficionados and mega fans of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in particular, Chainsaw and Dave are almost always talking about horror movies, and at times the film directly channels the spirit of ’80s horror; slashers were super hot at the time, so I suppose it was only natural that blood and guts started spilling over into other genres.
Fun Fact: One of the film’s students is played by Shawnee Smith, who went on to play Amanda Young in the Saw franchise!
In one scene, the wacky duo stages a killer rabbit massacre during a field trip to the petting zoo, using fake blood and liquid latex to prank their classmates. But Summer School‘s horror influence is strongest in a sequence where Chainsaw and Dave trick a substitute teacher into thinking the entire class has been slaughtered. It’s easily the goriest scene in any ’80s comedy, feeling like it was ripped straight out of a high school slasher flick. The practical gore effects, which include a sliced throat, a ripped out tongue and a complete disemboweling, are better than the effects you’ll find in many horror movies of the time; naturally, Chainsaw and Dave, wielding chainsaws, eventually reveal themselves to be the “killers.”
At another point, Chainsaw and Dave even convince teacher Freddy Shoop to screen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the class; clips from the 1974 classic, featured in Summer School, were to be my very first introduction to the film. In another scene they pen a love letter to makeup effects artist Rick Baker, praising his work in An American Werewolf in London and noting that they admire him very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much. Me too, Chainsaw and Dave. Me too.
Chainsaw and Dave are oddball outcasts in Summer School, not quite blending in with the other students, but there was something about seeing their love of horror represented on screen that made me feel, well, less like an outcast myself. And in the days before I realized how many people in this world appreciate gore effects and slasher maniacs, I got a lot of comfort out of watching their wacky antics. They were, after all, just like me.
More than anything, Summer School opened my eyes to the fact that there was an entire community of like-minded horror fans that I would someday – hopefully – be embraced and accepted by. It would be many years after the first of countless times I stayed up late at night watching Summer School, but that day eventually came. And thank god for that.
So thanks, Chainsaw and Dave. Thanks for being my horror pals until I found real ones.
I originally published a version of this article on Halloween Love, September 2015.