There’s something about the central gimmick of “Return to Horror High” (citywide) that seems irresistibly clever: What would happen if a low-budget schlocko horror production--full of manglings, splatterings, and hard-core mayhem--found itself stalked by the same boogeymen it was portraying?

In the story, we see a seedy, fourth-rate movie team--headed by a double-talking, unscrupulous producer (Alex Rocco), a farcically ambitious director (Scott Jacoby) and an enigmatically obsessed writer (Richard Brestoff)--recreate a string of unsolved murders in the very high school, “Crippen High,” where they were committed five years ago. (Crippen High was named no doubt after Britain’s legendary killer-doctor.) This sleazy endeavor is suddenly plagued with what first seems mass walkouts by cast and crew, caused by the horrendous working conditions, but is actually a new series of Crippen-style murders.

It’s a rich premise, and “Horror High” has a lot more ideas and humor than you’d expect. The framework lets the film makers make numerous inside satirical gags and also juice up the tension by switching along four different planes of action. At any given moment, we could be watching recollections of the past murders, the “real-life” backstage, the “phony” scenes in the movie being shot, or, occasionally, the nightmares of the cast and crew. There’s even a fifth level: The story is being recounted in flashback by the distraught screenwriter.

But “Return to Horror High” (rated R, for sex, nudity, language) doesn’t reach all its tongue-and-fang-in-cheek goals. It always seems better written than directed--doubly ironic since director Bill Froehlich is one of the four screenwriters. Froehlich’s directing lacks confidence and rhythm, he pushes many of the jokes too hard, and his actors, punched up to frenzied caricatures, are all over the map. Some are feeble or forced. Others are good in whole or part: Slimebag producer Rocco and Vince Edwards, as a lascivious biology teacher, both have their moments, and Al Fann makes a roaring full-blooded cartoon of the sinister Amos.

The movie is clever, but it’s not clever enough. True life or nightmare, recollection or schlock--each level of “reality” has the same camera angles, the same fake gore, and the same Saturday Night Live-in-the-Charnelhouse style acting. And the triple-twist climax is so wildly unlikely, and depends on such cretinous inattention from some of the cast, that you could only accept it in a drunken stupor. Still, the film is laudably offbeat: When was the last time you saw a heroine interrupt a slasher movie rape scene to denounce her employers for their execrable taste?