Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain that has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their “trigger,” if you will. Sometimes it’s horrifically tragic, sometimes it’s tragically hilarious. Sometimes, there’s no motivation at all. And sometimes, there’s too much motivation. With Triggered! we’re singling out one insane individual from some of the best and worst slasher films to see if we can make sense of the method behind their madness. For this installment, we’re focusing on the maniac behind the slayings in Splatter University, Father Jansen aka William Grayham.
On July 13th, 1984, Troma Entertainment distributed Richard W. Haines’ Splatter University, an inexpensive Noo Yawk cash-in on the slasher film frenzy. The film was shot for about $50,000, all of which can be seen on the screen in its disjointed glory. The incoherence of the film doesn’t just stem from the fact that it ran a measly 65 minutes when it was shot in 1981; re-shoots a year later beefed it up to a still slim 78 minutes (there are three time jumps throughout the film, two within the first five minutes!). Perhaps Splatter University’s biggest claims to notoriety are twofold: the first being that its poster, while memorable, features actress Elizabeth Kaitan (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) who isn’t in the film. The second is its shout-out in the college-bound slasher sequel, Scream 2. The plot of the film, originally titled Thou Shalt Not Kill, changed presumably so as to not divulge the killer’s identity before the final act, centering around the various coeds and faculty at a Catholic college called St. Trinian’s. The characters find themselves being slayed by a knife-wielding madman named William Grayham (this is what subtitles address him as, though the last scene dialogue reveals him to be Daniel Grayham, or Graham – hello continuity, where are you?), who escaped from a mental hospital at the beginning of the film. It’s up to the new Professor, Julie Parker, to solve the identity of the killer before it’s too late. Though she believes the campus slasher to be her beau, Mark, it’s ultimately revealed that the escaped lunatic has been hiding in plain sight as the kindly, wheelchair-bound Father Jansen.
The script for Splatter University, credited to three writers, including the director, Haines, is fairly explicit in just what drives Willam Grayham/Father Jansen to slay the various sundry women around the campus: a clear psycho-sexual bent coupled with devout religious zealotry. During his killer revelation scene, Jansen babbles to Professor Parker about “the temptations of the flesh and the women that arouse them,” which is usually unbalanced shorthand for “I can’t control myself around women, and it’s their fault. Now I can’t be responsible for any actions I take against them.” Take the madman’s final words in the film, as he’s re-institutionalized and entangled in a straitjacket: “I damned my soul by allowing these women to drain my precious voice.”
The problem is, it’s hard to tell some of the reasons why he’s targeting specific people. The one male victim in the film was a matter of expedience, he needed to get his clothes so he could escape the mental hospital. Further insight could be gleaned from the first meeting he has with Professor Parker. In it, he discusses the students in her class, the ones whose conduct he deems “highly objectionable.” By that he means drinking, drug use, and sexual misconduct. Granted, these kids are the usual college-aged meatheads–and the women who put up with them. The characters hardly talk like they’re even human beings, mostly responding to the deaths of their friends with a glib attitude. But the most obvious “sinner” in the killer’s eyes would be Kathy, who’s with child and doesn’t want anyone to know, outside of confiding in Professor Parker. She needs confidentiality because she fears Father Jansen would kick her out of school. However, he responds by kicking her off the mortal coil instead, which adds a bit of nastiness to it all; one, pregnant victims in slasher movies are intensely icky and, two, it furthers the film’s misogynistic tone by allowing Kathy’s jerk boyfriend Tom, just as guilty of committing a “sin” in premarital sex, to avoid the butcher’s blade.
Though we aren’t precisely clued into what actions got Father Jansen institutionalized in the first place, it’s clear that whatever he did, it warped him beyond repair. And he’s taken it upon himself to punish those who are “naughty.” He reveals that prior to the events of the film, “I was punished for my sins by the loss of my limbs. It wasn’t until after I repented that I regained my strength and knew what God has chosen for me to do.” Though, it may go deeper than that. Jansen’s trigger perhaps stems from a fear that if he doesn’t punish those around him for likely the very same sins he claims crippled his body, his afflictions may return to him. And for someone whose vices may have physically handicapped him, being on a college campus may have caused his homicidal tendencies to flare up again, especially a campus with a heavy focus on religion, with the definite possibility of students revolting against the strict Puritanical views of its faculty by engaging in those vices. This kind of binding behavior could be some various cocktail of undiagnosed or untreated mental affliction similar to what we might see in people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. This diagnosis, corroborated by the National Institute of Mental Health, falls in line with what we know of Father Jansen’s murderous habits: “Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety,” including “unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, or harm.” It seems he’s riddled with these obsessions. Everywhere he goes, they’re right there, shining in his face like a great, obtrusive neon light.
What is he to do then to snuff out these animalistic urges? That leads us to the compulsion side of the diagnosis. The same NIMH health topic tells us that [a person] “doesn’t get pleasure when performing the behaviors or rituals, but may feel brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause.” Perhaps we never see any type of physical or sexual gratification that comes from murdering the coeds, but we see an immediate, almost sweaty relief when Jansen slays Professor Parker at the film’s climax. Consider that, instead of healing his OCD in a healthy manner, he sees homicide as a way of quelling any mental anguish he may be feeling. As more support of the hypothetical OCD diagnosis, often present in OCD cases are nervous motor tics. “Motor tics are sudden, brief, repetitive movements such as eye blinking and other eye movements, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, and head or shoulder jerking,” says the NIMH, and we even see Father Jansen clanging his hand against his wheelchair uncontrollably early on in the film.
The plot of a psychotic priest murdering sinners feels like the kind of tawdry slasher antics cooked up by morbid minds for the silver screen, but the truth is so much worse. Take the horrifying tale of the German Catholic priest, Hans Schmidt, who has the distinction of being the only priest executed in the United States. In his formative years, Schmidt carried with him two passions: his bisexuality and reverence for religion. The other baggage he possessed was a history of mental illness and a macabre appreciation for the killing and dismemberment of farm animals, even going so far as to carry with him the decapitated heads of geese in his pocket. He was known to be mentally unstable, deemed by those around him unfit to serve as a Catholic priest, but was still ordained privately by a Bishop in 1904. He immigrated to the United States in 1909 after his acts of deviancy. Understandably, molesting altar boys and fraternizing with prostitutes dried up any assignments in his home parish. In New York City, around 1912 he began a sexual relationship with a woman named Anna Aumueller, who worked as a housekeeper for St. Boniface’s Rectory. He stated the relationship was ordered unto him by God. Later, he asserted that God had commanded him to “sacrifice” her after a tryst, which he then did in 1913 by slitting her throat, consuming her blood, defiling her corpse as she bled out, and finally hacking her up and disposing of the body parts in the Hudson River. He would then be put to death by the state of New York in 1916, dying by electric chair in the notorious prison, Sing Sing. Even though Splatter University doesn’t offer us too much helpful insight into Father Jansen’s specific mental makeup by way of a pre-institution backstory, it’s horrific real-life legends like Hans Schmidt that help provide us with the right kind of conjecture to analyze these kinds of movie villains.
Real-life implications aside, slasher fans might like this film because it’s got an admirable body count and the gore accompanying it is aplenty. There are loopy plot threads here and there, like a total non-explanation of what this maniac was doing for the three years in his escape and why he chose a Catholic college in the Bronx as his place to “settle down.” Furthermore, how this escaped killer managed to land a cushy gig as faculty at said college is equally as baffling, though this is lampshaded in the final scene as two doctors muse about this very topic: “What, they don’t do background checks?”
But I don’t want to be too hard on Splatter University, as it’s clear it was made on the skin of the production company’s teeth. After all, it was made with such frugality that its lead actress, Forbes Riley (who is the best part of the film, hands down), took it upon herself to do wardrobe continuity. And it’s got the reliable grit that on-location filmmaking in 1980s New York always delivered. For example, though it’s hard to be certain, in one scene in which Professor Parker chats with the morbid landlady Mrs. Bloom outside of the apartment building, it looks as though a person who isn’t involved with the film production is just standing there while the shoot commences. But I suppose those are the kind of low-budget frills we get when a film’s opening credits feature the four most frightening words in filmmaking: “Creative Consultant, Lloyd Kaufman.” So, to be fair with Splatter University, what we see is definitely what we get.