Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Class of 1984 (1982): or, the Kids are All Right, But You're DEAD!

Lincoln High School as just your average American secondary learning institution. There's the biology room full of cute fuzzy animals, overseen by the cantankerous but kind English expatriate instructor. There's the Music room, where a new teacher, Mr. Norris, is starting his first year, taking the place of the beloved ex-music teacher who fell down the stairs to his death in a tragic mishap just weeks prior. There's the killjoy principal who delights in watching Big Brother-style video monitors and siccing his security force on any kids who step out of line, by being tardy, say, or cutting class. And then of course, the student clubs who help define American high school life: clubs like the Drug Pusher Club, the Rapist Club, the Dramatic Disembowelment Club, and the Chess Club.

The Chess Club meets off campus.

Yes, Class of 1984 is a disturbingly prescient distopian vision of the future of American high schools--something like The Bronx Warriors or Escape from New York meets The Breakfast Club. Lincoln High School is a war zone, where the teachers live in fear, the students are either nihilistic malcontents or fearful sheep, and a new teacher determined to make a difference finds himself up against primal forces of savagery that William Golding only hinted at in Lord of the Flies.

Early on the idealistic Mr. Norris falls afoul of a brilliant but vicious young tough named Stegman (played by early 80s sit-com star Timothy Van Patten in a break from typecasting) and his gang of enthusiastic if two-dimensional henchmen: Drugstore (the Pusher), Barnyard (the muscle), Patsy (the slut), and Fallon (the...other muscle). Stegman "rules the school" with an iron fist, and no one dares cross him. The biology teacher, Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowell in a show-stealing role), tries to warn Norris off, but to no avail, as soon Mr. Norris finds out just what a bunch of kids with nothing to lose and no consequences to their actions can do.

I went in expecting b-movie cheese, but I was surprised and delighted to discover that this is actually an excellent, well-made, well-acted, even prophetic movie with a lot of rewards to the open-minded viewer. The cast is top-notch across the board. Van Patten as Peter Stegman is a wonderful, truly frightening villain--he's only a boy, but one who knows exactly the advantages his position as a juvenile gives him over his nemesis Mr. Norris.

"Excuse me...could you direct us to the library?
I have a book report on A Clockwork Orange due tomorrow."

In one of the best scenes in the movie, Norris corners Stegman in the boy's room and threatens him, but Stegman laughs it off and calls the bluff. Norris is unable to carry through on his threat. Then, in a brutal scene, Stegman "shows him" how he should have "done me," by viciously ramming his own head into a mirror, a sink, a towel dispenser, and throwing himself against the hard tile walls. The caring teacher in Norris comes to the surface as he tries to restrain the young man from hurting himself further, and when he does, Stegman grins and rubs his own blood all over Norris's hands, just before the security guards come in and survey the scene. Of course Norris is arrested for assault, and Stegman plays the innocent to the hilt. It's really a tour de force, a chilling scene, and only because of Van Patten's excellent portrayal of the remorseless, psychotic juvenile mastermind.

He's not the only great actor here, though. Perry King as Mr. Norris gives a fantastic performance as a man whose idealism slowly gives way to harsh reality, as he finds himself pushed to savagery against the very children he'd previously have sacrificed himself to protect. His arc is rather telegraphed but still fun to watch, especially in the tense finale where he is hunted through the darkened school building by Stegman's gang (who have kidnapped and raped Norris's wife in a previous hard-to-watch scene), and must fight for his life and the life of his wife and unborn child. This was another tour de force for the movie, as it really went places I did not expect it to go, even after all the carnage that had gone before. But, again, it's set up well, and in its own way is cruelly satisfying.

Finally I would be remiss not to mention Roddy McDowall again, who is the disillusioned mentor to King's Norris. Roddy carries a gun in his briefcase, a flask in his jacket pocket, loves only the animals in his biology room and frequently teaches while intoxicated. Though he's beat down and broken, he won't stop teaching, clinging to the vain hope that he might make a difference in just one young life before he stops. His show-stopping performance is in a scene where, pushed to the brink by Stegman's cruelty, he teaches his class at gunpoint! Truly fantastic stuff.

"Tell me the year the Magna Carta was signed. NOW!"

Other notable bit characters include a VERY young Michael J. Fox as a tormented good kid who falls afoul Stegman and the gang, and Erin Flannery as the talented music student who just might make it out of the cesspool of Lincoln High to something better. Stegman's gang also throw themselves into their characters with rare gusto, and all in all I couldn't name one weak performance, except possibly Merrie Lynn Ross as Norris's too-much PollyAnna wife. But that's a minor complaint.

The movie IS a b-movie, however, very low budget and aware of its exploitation pedigree. I appreciate that. While much more restrained than its brethren like Class of Nuke 'Em High, there's still plenty of blood, violence, nudity, and perversity to go around, and the characters are perhaps a bit more broadly drawn and the situations a bit more over the top than they would be in a more mainstream production. But this works to the movie's advantage, in my mind, as it plays not as realism, but as a cautionary tale.

"I'm on fire...for LEARNING!"

And one they would have done well to heed--in the 80s the movie was criticized as being "too extreme" in its bleak view of the high school life, even going so far as to depict such flights of fancy as (gasp!) kids taking weapons into school and passing through metal detectors at the doors! That would NEVER happen, right?

Obviously the movie was prophetic in many ways. The social commentary is still valid (not only the school stuff, but some biting scenes with Stegman at home with his over-indulgent mom), over 20 years after the fact.

I give Class of 1984 3 thumbs, and think it's a flick that fans of b-movies, exploitation, and just good cinema should watch. A pleasant surprise, and a dvd I'm glad I bought.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails