I was never a strong student in high school, and it was completely for lack of trying; I had smart teachers with good intentions who tried their best to impart knowledge that I simply felt I had no use for. Ignorance, thy name is Scott and I’m certainly not proud of it. Anyway, I definitely never had the roadblocks facing the good students of Class of 1984 (1982), Mark L. Lester’s mesmerizing, brutal, dystopian look at the very worst of the educational system through the eyes of a teacher trying to wade his way through a barrel of diseased apples.
Distributed by United Film Distribution Company stateside in August with a world wide rollout continuing into ’83, Class of 1984 certainly rang some bells in the press; some critics offered effusive praise (such as Roger Ebert), while others were less kind (Newsweek called it “The Class of ’82 with herpes”, which is first class yet confounding snark). The film did bring in nearly seven million; which isn’t bad, even though it reportedly cost over four to make. If my maths hold up that’s still a profit, and considering what a hard sell (and occasionally hard watch) Class of 1984 was to the general public at the time, nothing short of a miracle.
Let’s welcome music instructor Mr. Norris (Perry King – The Possession of Joel Delaney) to the hallowed halls of Abraham Lincoln High, where gangs roam freely, metal detectors line every entrance, and teachers arm themselves for their own protection. His guide is science teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall – Fright Night), who knows who to avoid in the halls and how to survive a day at Abe High. Mr. Norris’ first class houses several of the avoid-ees, led by Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten – The White Shadow), a charismatic lonely boy with a penchant for the psychotic.
It doesn’t take long for Peter and his Junior Droogs to rub Mr. Norris the wrong way; none too keen on drug pushers, rapists, and pimps, he’s the first teacher to press beyond the ineffectual, which in turn has Stegman pushing back hard against everything Norris stands for and loves, especially his betrothed Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross – The Lucifer Complex). Will Mr. Norris be able to end Stegman’s reign of terror and boost school spirit?
Truth be told, if the majority of events that take place in Class of 1984 happened in the real world, there would be multiple arrests, including Norris. But even though Lester’ script, co-authored by John Saxton (Happy Birthday to Me) and Tom Holland (Fright Night) is prescient in some ways (metal detectors, sadly, were right around the corner) and accurate in others – juvenile crimes are much harder to prosecute – it’s really an exploitation film at heart, and possibly the finest of the era.
It’s all in the details; while keeping in line with grindhouse protocol – Stegman’s team includes exaggerated punky goons with names like Drugstore (Stefan Arngrim – Fear No Evil), Barnyard (Keith Knight – My Bloody Valentine), and Rejack (Steve Pernie – The Kidnapping of the President) – the characters are fleshed out enough by the writers that stakes are raised and investments are made; having a cast this solid only sells the drama that much more.
And it is a drama, cut from the same cloth as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) but given a coat of neon paint, a good amount of blood, and a punk rock soundtrack that comically paints the misfits as their generation’s no-goodniks; it’s hard to take most social messages seriously when the strokes are this broad but as pulpy urban grit it soars. Class of 1984 is earnest with the points it makes, but the indifference of the judicial system and increased violence in schools are handled by and hammered home with such a magnetic touch by Lester (Firestarter) that all subtle lessons are entirely subsumed by the exhilaration of the filmmaking.
Which very much works for me, as Lester is a master at staging set pieces that bite. There is a gripping scene where poor Terry (one of McDowall’s finest moments) breaks down and teaches his science class with his gun as his aide that sucks all the air from the lab and leaves the viewer breathless. (I’m pretty sure even I would have aced science with Terry.) This is where it gets tricky; is the film advocating for Terry to terrorize his class in much the same way they have terrorized him, or is it just showing a man past his breaking point? Or is it both? It’s impossible to watch this scene today and not draw parallels between it and our should-never-happen school tragedies.
But Class of 1984 works best as straight up heightened melodrama, updated for modern horror audiences with the kids as a suitable substitute for Jason, stalking the halls for drug money, johns, and slashing anyone in their way. Any personality they’re given comes solely from quirky character actors like Arngrim, Knight, and Lisa Langois (Happy Birthday to Me), all leering, manic, and terrific; except for Stegman, who is given beats and moments to breathe that hint at a troubled soul. Van Patten’s good looks may make him the de facto (and default) leader, but his presence is informed with enough pathos to make him the most interesting as well.
The school isn’t all hard asses and psychopaths, however; there’s a couple of students in the band, played winningly by some kid named Michael Fox and The Incubus’ Erin Flannery who show the innocence that’s at stake in the school, and King is always a sturdy, authoritative presence, even if his authority turns from helpful to harmful as the story escalates.
And this is why Class of 1984 still works today; the story ramps up to a dramatic finish atop the school as the band blares Tchaikovsky below, a soundtrack to a film filled with anachronisms – the heroic, beautiful strains of classical music as Norris battles the punks, the high ground of an educated mind turned towards a Straw Dogs nihilism – that keeps the viewer riveted and paying attention until the last bell tolls. I may not have been anywhere near as monstrous as a Stegman, but to all the Terrys who taught at Freeport Anglican High School, I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention in class. If it’s any consolation, I was probably daydreaming about horror movies.
Class of 1984 is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)