Class of 1984 (dir. Mark Lester, 1982)
“Last year there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers and classmates in our high schools. Unfortunately, this film is based on true events. Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High…yet.” (I feel like this last bit should be followed by a spooky laugh) – The opening title card to Class of 1984
“The teachers who teach not only my kids but all the other children across the state of Wisconsin, are great public servants. What I’m doing is long term, it’s making a structural change so that more of them can stay in our classrooms.” – Gov. Scott Walker
Last week I promised that my next post would review Death Wish 3. I was hoping to do something funny and I wanted to chose a film that I knew would be so absurd that the sarcastic comments would fall like ripe apples. Alas, in preparation for Death Wish 3, I figured I’d first watch the original Death Wish because I’d actually never seen it. But then, as sometimes happens, I got stuck in an ever deepening hole of Netflix recommendations. You know, if you like Raw Deal, you’ll like Angels with Dirty Faces, and if you like Angels with Dirty Faces, you’ll like L.A Confidential, you get it. So as I was digging my way out of the Death Wish cycle, I came across Class of 1984. And after watching the trailer, I realized I’d found a film that appeared to be equally insane but a little less well known, so it bumped Death Wish 3 to an unspecified later date. My apologies to Charles Bronson and the Giggler.
So I went in fully expecting Class of 1984 to play like a high school version of The Warriors, I wanted to laugh at the exaggerated punk outfits and revel in the dank squalor of imagined urban decay. And to be fair, Class of 1984 gives us that for about half the film but the other half, for better or worse, is more like A Clockwork Orange. I mean there is some real honest-to-God brutality in this film, the kind of horror where you can’t really laugh because it’s pretty awful (some scenes are so vile in fact that screenwriter Barry Schneider got his name removed from the credits).
Class of 1984 is a B movie from the early 1980’s. It tells the story Mr. Norris, a well-adjusted family man who takes a job teaching music at Lincoln High. However, unbeknownst to Mr. Norris, Lincoln High is under the control of a violent punk-rock gang. The gang deals drugs, runs a prostitution ring, and causes general mayhem. Other teachers at the school, including Mr. Corrigan (played by Roddy MacDowel, the actor best known for playing an ape in four Planet of the Apes films) have come to a mutual understanding with the punks: we’ll look the other while you destroy any lingering threads of social fabric, and you don’t terrorize us or our families. Seems like a fair trade off.
But when Mr. Norris arrives he decides he’s not going to let the school remain a barely functioning hell hole. Mr. Norris is going to take a stand. Bad idea. What follows is a steady escalation of tension and violence between the teachers and the gang. It all ends with a Halloween 2 style massacre, except instead of Michael Myers killing nurses with a knife, you have Mr. Norris, the trumpet teacher, beating students to death with a wrench.
The leader of the Lincoln High gang is a teen named Stegman who maintains the feathered blonde locks of a early 60’s surfer but dresses like Michael Jackson going to a Misfits show. And yes, Stegamn is capable of extreme physical and sexual violence, he kills rival gang members, he pimps out other students, but wait, not so fast, before you think you know the real Stegamn, watch as he plays THE PIANO. Maybe there’s more to him than meets the eye?…I love that Mark Lester (the director) thinks all you need to do to add depth to a psycho is have him play a sonata, if only it were that easy.
Stegman is played by none other than Tim Van Patten. It’s a name I didn’t recognize until one day I’m sitting on the couch, eating a bag of white cheddar popcorn, watching The Sopranos and whoa, the episode was directed by Tim Van Patten! Turns out, same guy. Seems Van Patten went from eighties teen actor to long form TV director extraordinaire. He was integral to all six season of The Sopranos and currently directs the majority of Boardwalk Empire. Crazy right?
Anyway, the atrocities committed by Stegman and his gang make The Substitute (“no talking in the library”) look like Gidget (“a cuddling, befuddling teen”). Just a few examples: The group sexually assaults Norris’s pregnant wife. They break into the school one night, kill all the science lab rabbits and other animals, and leave their flayed bodies hung around the room. They convince a fourteen year old to stab another student. They throw Molotov cocktails into open cars. It goes on…
And what the makes the film both completely unbelievable and yet, to me, kind of effective is that the town remains wholly indifferent to the chaos. The cigar chomping police throw up their hands. The principal takes the side of the kids against Mr. Norris, “Juveniles do this kind of thing”. Even though you can’t really believe that a town would be so handcuffed by a group of teens, the lack of outside help makes Mr. Norris’s actions at the end seem inevitable.
Like I said, the film was directed by Mark Lester. In various interviews Lester has called the film his personal favorite, and honestly, I’m shocked, not because it’s that terrible, but because Lester directed another film that I consider to be a real classic, 1985’s Commando starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Commando, for those who haven’t seen it, is the cinematic equivalent of middle school sleepover where your best friend sneaks in a bottle of Mad Dog and a bag of Mega Sour Warheads. It’s that fucking good. Furthermore, Lester should be important to me and anyone else who studied film at University of North Carolina at Wilmington because he directed Firestarter. And Firestarter is the film credited with making Wilmington, NC into an epicenter for east coast film production. It was the first major studio film shot in the area and led to everything from Dawson’s Creek to Iron Man 3.
Now trust me, I understand that Class of 1984 is fiction, and a certain suspension of disbelief is required no matter the subject matter, but before I end this review I think it’s worth noting a few of Class of 1984’s more egregious inconsistencies:
-This high school’s budget is robust enough to fund a music program, a science lab with more animals than most zoos, an auto body class (complete with practice cars), metal detectors, even state of the art video surveillance, but they seemingly lack the funds to hire any janitorial staff. The walls are literally covered floor to ceiling in graffiti: faceless bodies fellating (verb?) one another, racial slurs, swastikas. You think the school could get somebody in there, even if it’s just for a weekend to clean/repaint the walls. I’m not a huge fan of the guy but the school could take a lesson from Giuliani’s “Broken Window” policing.
– It’s unclear why Stegman and his gang continue to go to school…? They have a thriving drug business. They deal in the flesh trade. They literally have people lining up to perform violent or sexual acts for them. Sure, most of their business comes from other students, but they could just as easily hang out in the parking lot, sparing themselves the grief of pat downs and meddlesome teachers.
-The final title card gives a bizarre explanation as to why Mr. Norris is never prosecuted for pushing a student through a plate glass ceiling, sawing a student in half with a circular saw, and burning a student alive with gasoline: “Andy Norris was not prosecuted because the police could not find anyone who actually saw it happen.” Ummm, actually the film makes a point at the outset to show us that the entire school is under heavy video surveillance. They even show the principal watching students on closed circuit TV… so since this murderous rampage takes place in the school, couldn’t they just check the tape?
Yet, despite all it’s flaws, Class of 1984 is worth checking out. It does a great job creating atmosphere and contains some genuinely shocking moments. If you can forgive the abrupt changes in tone, you’ll get a film that’s schlocky, appalling, ludicris, and a great movie to watch if you ever wonder what goes through the minds of geriatrics every time they see someone with saggy jeans or pink hair.
-Is baring one’s breasts still a sign of rebellion? There’s a scene in a punk rock club where a girl in the audience lifts up her shirt. I guess we’re supposed to think “Oh no, how could she!?”. But my first thought was “Damn, I need to do some laundry.” Maybe I’m just getting older, but the naked breast doesn’t have the same shock value that it once did…sigh.
– The film includes one of the first appearances of Michael J. Fox and he actually plays a pretty significant role as Arthur, one of the few good students in Mr. Harris’ music class. Fox is pudgier and has a crappier haircut but he uses the same kind of nervous charm that he’d later perfect in Back To the Future and Family Ties.
– Class of 1984 is the kind of film that I could see gaining a strong cult following, so much so, that Hot Topic takes notice and buys images from the film, then all of a sudden the mall is overrun with teens in Class of 1984 t-shirts, celebrating the very thing the film is trying to condemn…kind of like A Clockwork Orange.
-Because Class of 1984 was produced by a Canadian company and shot in Toronto, it also works as a not so subtle attack on the U.S education system. One can only imagine our neighbors to the north requiring a mandatory screening of Class of 1984 in high school auditoriums across the country. “Listen up kids, you think you’re teachers are mean, well, at least they haven’t pinned you down to a circular saw and cut your arm off…so be grateful.”
– Maybe critics or scholars have already made the connection between punk rock aesthetic and Native Americans, but for some reason it really hit me while watching Class of 1984. The most obvious example would be the mohawk, right? You’ve got the Mohawk Indians on the one hand and the egg-white mohawk of punk teens on the other. There’s also graffitti, which resemble in some ways the cave paintings of the Anasazi people. There’s even a connection to be made between the piercings, nose rings, lip rings, etc, done by punk rockers and the piercings that were such a strong part of Native-American culture. In fact, the more I think about it, the more Class of 1984 makes a great companion piece to Jeremiah Johnson. Both films are about a straight laced, by the book, white man, embracing the violent wilderness around him. In both films our protagonist tries to start a family in that chaos, and then realizes the only way to survive is through violence. Substitute Indians for punk rock teens and the films start to look pretty similar.