Angela Bressler, Sara Eckhardt, Kristen Riter and Anita Taylor in Student Bodies
The 1981 horror movie parody, “Student Bodies,” which was filmed in Houston in the fall of 1980, has stood the test of time to become a cult classic. In this send-up of “Halloween”, “Stir Crazy”, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Prom Night”, a crazed killer called The Breather hunts down high school kids and dispatches them with an array of harmless objects wielded as murder weapons, including including paper clips, blackboard erasers, eggplant and horse head bookends.
For most of the actors, including lead actor Kristen Riter who was still in high school during filming, this was their only film appearance. Riter, not to be confused with contemporary actor Krysten Ritter, became a minor rock star in Europe recording with the band Wedding and also Popul Vuh on the “Cobra Verde” soundtrack. Riter currently teaches vocals and keyboards at a music school in San Ramon, California.
But for Houston-based production coordinator Susan Vogelfang, who now lives in Los Angeles, it all started when she got an out of the blue call from director Michael Ritchie of “Bad News Bears” fame. “Michael quoted me a higher rate than I had ever done,” Vogelfang says.
“I’m going to do the movie for half a million,” Ritchie told her. Along with a credit as unit production manager, Vogelfang has worn many hats, including that of location manager and ad hoc Teamster captain.
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Ritchie told him, “We’re going to have two weeks to prepare, we’re going to shoot in 21 days, and we’re going to wrap for a week.”
Locations included Texas Southern University; Lamar Junior High School in Richmond, used for a ballroom dance; and James E. Taylor High School in Katy, used for football game footage.
A parade using Foley’s Store floats was held at the corner of Main Street and Bell Street. Today, the only recognizable remaining building seen in the background is Houston House Apartments. The tanks are seen against The Exile Club, once the city’s oldest gay bar, located at 1011 Bell St. but closed in 1986.
As a member of the DGA, Ritchie could not take credit for the direction because the film was not unionized. This credit went to Mickey Rose. Rose himself was a successful writer who wrote Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas” and wrote material for Johnny Carson.
Rose and fellow writers (credited as producers) Jerry Belson and Harvey Miller were on the gag writing set daily.
Belson’s credits include producing and writing “The Odd Couple” and he also voiced The Breather. Miller was nominated for an Oscar for “Private Benjamin.”
“They were hilarious to be there,” Vogelfang says. “They couldn’t turn it off.
Craig Busch, then a production assistant who would become a stage manager in Houston, remembers Rose and the other writers rewriting jokes on set every day.
“Mickey was calling for action, but if he had a setup that wasn’t working, Ritchie would change it,” says Busch. “Ritchie was the driving force.”
Busch recalled a scene where a stuntman dove through a four-story window. “He got paid $600 but they had to do the stunt twice. Ritchie no longer wanted to pay the $600. They haggled for a while, and the stunt man held up five fingers and Ritchie shook his head. Then he held up four fingers and Ritchie nodded in agreement,” Busch explains.
Ritchie brought in prop master Donald Nunley from Hollywood, so he was a heavyweight in the art department.
“He told me about the product place and said, ‘We’re going to get a lot of free stuff.’ Michael had a scene where a babysitter opens a fridge and all the product placement is there at the same time,” Vogelfang explains.
Some of the items featured in “Student Bodies” include Coors Beer, Dr. Pepper, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Student Bodies” ends with weapons rising from a fresh grave. Houston-based producer Susan Elkins remembers it well.
“They needed someone to be in the grave, so I volunteered. They weren’t going to bury any of the actors,” Elkins explains. “We paid attention to safety, I had a breathing apparatus. I didn’t like doing it, and they shot it in one take.
As a gift after production ended, Ritchie and Rose presented the crew with individual horse-head bookends, a major prop in the film, with each person’s name on a plaque. Despite the film’s R rating, the film contains no graphic violence, sex, or language except for an F-bomb. Ritchie continued his studio career in the ’80s with hits like “The Survivors” and ” Fletch”.
Michael Bergeron is a Houston-based writer.