Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Cult Classics: Class of 1984

Awww, the cuddliest bunch of punks you ever did see.
Upon its release in 1982, two questions about Class of 1984 emerged: was it trying to serve as a prescient forecast of what was to come in secondary education, or was it just an unsubtle parody of those types of stories? I think it's a little from column A and a whole hell of a lot from column B. It veers straight into absurdist territory early and stays there throughout. The film's inner-city high school is equipped with metal detectors—something that didn't become a reality in schools until the 1990s, if I recall—but the most vile and troublesome kids at the school also look like they either just stepped out of a Broadway musical or are extras on loan from Fame. Ah, the early 1980s, when movies and television depicted punks in a way that can only be described as hilariously clueless. Who can ever forget the infamous episode of Quincy, M.E. that tried to scared the bejesus out of parents all over the country with its portrayal of the scourge of punk rock? It's clear that the respective creators behind that cult episode and Class of 1984 had never met any actual punks in their lives. This, along with several other factors, makes it hard to take the movie seriously. It's so ludicrously exaggerated that it shoots right into cartoonish caricature. Still, the over the top moments—and trust me, there are plenty of them—can't diminish the movie's fast-paced manic energy or some of its most genuinely disturbing scenes. This film hits the ground running and never lets up. The problem is, the character's motivations and actions are so random, the performances and dialogue so high pitched and frenzied, that it's hard to take any of it seriously. At times it feels like most of the leads in the film are competing to see who can over-emote with the most gusto.

Sporting the punk rock style!
Whatever the filmmakers' intentions may have been, no audience will walk away from this movie thinking it was a serious treatise on our troubled youth. It's a b movie genre flick, a video nasty, all the way. Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), the leader of the evil gang of miscreants terrorizing the school, is a well-off kid who lives in an immaculately furnished high-rise apartment with a mother who dotes on him. The kid is a piano prodigy who seems to live a double life—sweet and kind at home to mommy, but threatening and increasingly violent on the streets and at school. It's almost as if he acts out because he's simply too smart for everyone else. Which might be an interesting idea to explore, except nothing about him seems real enough to hold up under any amount of critical scrutiny. The film would have had greater impact if it hadn't made the lead baddie such a cipher. The problem is that he and his pals come off as kids play-acting at being bad. There's hardly any nuance to them so it's impossible to see them as anything but silly most of the time. This fits squarely with the prevailing approach to criminals in genre films of the era. For example, see any Death Wish film for further evidence.

Terry's having a very bad day. A Michael Douglas in Falling Down kind of bad day.
All of those complaints aside, the film does push viewer's buttons with exploitative and gratuitous violence, thus confirming it's reputation as a video nasty—one that will disgust the cinematic establishment but play well to home video audiences who enjoy some blood and guts. So while the violence might be as overwrought as the actors, there are some genuinely disturbing scenes. One involves a teacher named Terry, played by Roddy McDowell, who has mentally checked out due to the sheer insanity of his daily existence at this hell-hole of a school. As the film progresses, McDowell's character tries to talk some sense into newbie teacher Andrew Norris (Riptide's own Perry King!), reminding him repeatedly that there's nothing he can do for these kids anymore and it's best to just put your head down and stay out of harm's way. But Terry is too good at heart to follow his own advice, which leads him to an inevitable nervous breakdown. He winds up holding his out-of-control class hostage with a gun in an attempt to force them to learn something. It's a suspenseful scene and well acted by the legendary McDowell. Previously in the film, McDowell was all bluster and scenery chewing, offering sarcastic asides and ominous declarations. But in this scene, after a particularly violent and heinous act has finally driven him over the edge, McDowell really shines. He's finally cracked under the constantly looming threat of violence at the school, crossing over into a netherworld of doomed fatalism. It's one of the film's more touching and harrowing scenes and a tour de force for McDowell. Later, he literally goes out in a blaze of glory, providing a sad ending for a character you just knew wasn't going to survive this mess.

"You will learn to read sheet music in my class!"
Does Andrew learn from Terry's fate? Nope. See, Andrew's a stubborn guy. He retains a myopic view of the situation through most of the film—he really thinks he can turn these kids around if they'll just listen to him—which makes him seem delusional at best, entirely out of touch at worst. Just when you think things can't get any worse for Andrew, they do indeed get worse. It's obvious throughout that he and Stegman are on a collision course that might well leave one or both of them dead. The whole thing is like a mad game of chicken that can only end with both cars crashing into one another and exploding spectacularly. The film's already frantic pace kicks up a notch towards the end, culminating in a wild orgy of mayhem and violence. Andrew engages in bloody combat with Stegman and his gang in the dark halls of the school while everyone else attends the orchestra concert in the auditorium. One by one, Andrew prevails over the various goons in increasingly preposterous ways. For instance, one of the delinquents has a particularly bad run in with the table saw in the shop room. The final showdown between Andrew and Stegman is certifiably over the top. Which, to be fair, is highly appropriate and consistent with the rest of the movie's approach to the material.

Graffiti fu: some very uninspired wall scrawlings in this movie.
Class of 1984 is a nasty little genre film, from an era when they had a certain charm that's partly been lost in our modern streaming age. I realize this write up has been a bit hard on the film, but I do recommend you check it out, especially if you're a b movie fan. Hell, if you are a b movie fan, you have to check it out. Lovers of trashy cinema can find something redeeming in almost any piece of garbage. And we don't necessarily see garbage as a derogatory term either, because we love to revisit and reclaim trash. To quote Moby-Dick:
"And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way."
Yes, I just quoted Melville while discussing a movie where someone actually asks, "What's the matter with you? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with matter?" I can't make this stuff up, kids. I'm also unclear if its intentionally or unintentionally funny? If that piqued your curiosity (and really, why wouldn't it?), give Class of 1984 a shot—just don't expect a lot and you probably won't be disappointed. You may even be entertained, like I was. At the very least you can marvel at a baby-faced Michael J. Fox as nice kid Arthur, who's habitually tormented by Stegman and his sadistic pals. In the same year this movie was released, Fox began working on a new sitcom, Family Ties, which would help launch him into superstardom. Class of 1984 was his swan song in b movies. He got out, which is more than can be said for poor Terry in this movie.

So long suckers, Alex P. Keaton is outta here.

No comments:

Post a Comment