Saturday, April 25, 2009

Movies: Stay classy, Part I.

It is so painfully clichéd that it seems like spoof.

Imagine a small B-production flick, a straight out exploitation exercise that hits a nerve by tapping a hot-button social issue - school violence - that, at the time of its release, was shifting from taboo topic to national hysterical obsession. The flick's bizarre combination of grim violence, ham-fisted melodrama, ignorance of actual ground conditions, and occasionally verité style gave the relatively cheesy affair a nightmarish edge that resonated with Reagan Era fears that the U.S. was beset by evil empires from without and barbarians from within. Deserved or not, it got the reputation as a hard hitting and unflinching vision of a new strain of bad ugliness that was threatening Our American Way of Life™.

It made nice bank. The filmmakers gathered several years later, ready for the sequel.

They decided to revisit the issue of school violence. Only this time, they could explore facets of the premise that had been unthinkable when the first film had rolled out. Most notably, what if, instead of human teachers, the government had Terminator-style cyborg killing-machines act as school administrators. You can almost hear the pitch being made to Griffin Mill.

"It's the future. And killer robots run the school. It's like Terminator meets Stand and Deliver."

"Will it have action?"

"Tons of action. These robots are programmed to teach and kill. Tons of gore."

"Tasteful gore?"

"Tasteful gore."

"Will it be socially conscious?"

"Yes definitely. It speaks to America's concerns about our out of control youth. And our national fears that killer robots may be hiding among us."

"I like it."

Goofy as that sounds, it pretty much describes exactly what happened to 1982's cult juvie-run-amok classic The Class of 1984 and it's sequel The Class of 1999.

In this post and the post that follows, my dear Screamers and Screamettes, we're going to take a little detour out of the straight-up horror genre and check in on some kids that are definitely not alright. Today we start with the strangely compelling, if totally horrible, Class of 1984. Then we'll jump into our time machine and travel to the distant future, to the last year of the Twentieth Century, and see what high school is like for The Class of 1999.

Ready. Then c'mon gang!

The flick opens on a montage of Lincoln High, an "inner city" school (gamely played by a far too nice Central Tech High School of Toronto) that suffers from all manner of social ill. The administration is full of ass-covering bureaucrats that are simply punching clock until they can politick their way on to the school board, the teachers are demoralized drunks and cynics, and a students live under the spasmatic tyranny of a gang of punk-music loving Neo-Nazi dope pushers.

Into this slough of despond steps music teacher Andrew Norris – played by show biz survivor Perry King. (As an aside, Perry King's had an astounding career. He's been in everything from the recent schlockbuster Day After Tomorrow to the Warhol produced Bad, not to mention a television career that covers nearly four decades.) Fresh from a school in Nebraska, Norris's first bit of culture shock comes when he finds out that fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (the always nifty Roddy McDowell) packs a .45 every day just in case the little monsters get out of control.

It takes all of about 10 minutes for Norris to run afoul with Stegman (played by White Shadow alum Tim Van Patten) and his gang of Nazi punks. After a tense face off that resolves in a threatening, but relatively harmless prank, it looks like Stegman and Norris might be able to get along by simply agreeing to disagree.

This détente doesn't hold for long. In a scene that showcases director Lester's famed subtly, a student hopped up on some of Stegman's drugs climbs to the top of the school's flag pole, attracts a crowd, begins reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then falls to his death, the American flag wrapped around his shattered frame. Norris can't take the senseless tragedy and obviously profound symbolic importance of the event and starts looking for a student who will testify to Stegman and Co's evil deeds. Specifically, he turns to innocent bystander Arthur (the film debut of Michael J. Fox) who, even though he won't give up the gang, gets shived in the cafeteria anyway.

The battle of wills between the gang and their music teacher escalates to physical violence, culminating in the gang rape of Norris's pregnant wife and a bloody confrontation between Norris and the gang in the halls of Lincoln High.

As far as plots go, the overall arc of the tale will be familiar to anybody who has ever seen a man-pushed-too-far flick, especially any one of the dozen flicks in the teacher-vs. student throwdown late-'80s to mid-'90s subgenre that this movie helped kick start (The Principle, The Substitute and its three sequels, 187, and so on). The plot, however, is rather incidental to the pleasures of the flick. Instead, it's the odd characterizations, over-the-top set pieces (most noticeably Corrigan's pop-quiz-at-gunpoint flip out), bizarre line readings, and the director's exploitation-honed instincts to "go there" – though tame by modern standards, it was nearly saddled with an X rating at the time - that leave a lasting impression.

The film's visual style is clunky and somewhat artless. The colorful plumage of his fictional gang members did not inspire Lester to adopt similarly colorful flourishes. Aside from some oddly framed shots in the final showdown, Lester's camera work feels stagy and static. Oddly, this kinda works for him. Combined with the cornball dialogue and the presence of so many familiar TV Land faces, Lester's workman-like style gives the film a decidedly small screen feel. Not only does this mean it ages well in the era of DVD, but it also gives it viewer the curious sense that they're watching some "very special episode" of a television drama go horribly off the tracks. We're not watching real life; we're watching some sort of cruel invasion of the reassuring world of fantasy. It tells you almost everything you need to know about American culture at the dawn of the Reagan Era that '84 was considered a work of social realism not because it looked real, but rather because it looked like the kind of fictional television we reserved for important social messages.

The film's unapologetic Reagan revolution morality also packs a punch. Despite it's rep as a groundbreaking film, Class of '84 is far from the first teens-gone-wild flick. In fact, several of its scenes are influenced, if not outright cribbed, from Blackboard Jungle. Nor should we praise it for its clarity of insight in our social ills. It's gang hails from the same mean streets as The Warriors; they're more film baddie convention than sociological phenomenon. What is innovative is its utter lack of apology for the solution it offers up for dealing with such kids: Separate them from the good kids and get rid of them. A Western without the antiquated concepts of honor or human nobility, Class of '84 is surreal fable of authoritarian revenge, a bold reassertion of the moral order in the face of a system so weak and corrupt that it can no longer defend itself. Unlike the Brando's Wild One or Dean's Rebel, the revolting youth of this flick are merely vile and the film not only dispatches them with relish, but it endcaps the execution of the final gangster with a strange sort of smirk in the form of a blackly humorous title card that basically says, "And the community said, 'Good riddance.'"

It's the same kind of giddy knuckle-dragging irresponsibility that makes the works of Frank Miller or the any of a million "cop who won't play by the rules" movies so involving. The fantasy of a righteous avenger fills us with an overwhelming sense of the redemptive power of fictional violence. Done right, as it is in Class of '84, it can be weirdly mesmerizing.

The Class of 1984 is real exploitation filmmaking at its best: mean people doing ugly things in the service of gut level appeal. That its raw populist anger and thuggish sensibilities still give off heat is a testament to how perfectly pitched the flick was.

That said, it has this truly terrible Alice Cooper song – a syn-soaked '80s mistake for the otherwise nifty horror glam icon – as its theme song. Watch at your own risk:


The Vicar of VHS said...

I watched this flick for the first time last year to review for my site, and was actually pretty amazed by it. A lot is made about the movie's prescience, but deservedly so, imo. I mean, the opening scene where the kids are going through metal detectors? That was an over-the-top idea at the time of filming, a real clue that we were in a distopian future. And I don't have to tell you how *that* turned out.

All your points about the stylistic shortcomings are more than fair, but I'm not sure it would have worked as well had it been slicker--for me, anyway. And Van Patten's performance really got to me, probably because of his TV sitcom pedigree, which I'm sure was the point. His self-destructiveness in the bathroom confrontation scene I found genuinely chilling, esp. as followed by his cold and knowing manipulation of the situation afterward. Ham-fisted? Obvious? Sure--but it worked for me.

Never got round to viewing the sequel, but it's on my to-do list. :)

BTW, my comment verification word is "wines", for some reason. I think I'm going to take it as a sign and hit the liquor store on the way home.

CRwM said...


The self-abuse scene - so to speak - is a highlight. There's several of those great moments in the flick: the at-gunpoint bio class, the reaction shot of the female gang member when she sees the prostitute, the so absurd that it is sublime end of Stegman, and so on.

One of the weirdly awesome things about the film is its uneven quality. Just when you think you're about to get some cornball crap, something like Stegman going all I'm-Jack's-self-mutilating-alter-ego happens and takes you by surprise.

You're spot on about the casting of Van Patten. Though I think that ties into sense that the film's not realistic so much as its television - more real than real, for most of us.