Written by: Tom Holland, Mark Lester, John C.W. Saxton, and Barry Schneider
Directed by: Mark Lester
Starring: Perry King, Roddy McDowall, and Timothy Van Patten
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"The teachers at Lincoln High have a very dangerous problem... their students!"
High school can be a scary place. Many films have portrayed the cut-throat nature of teenage society and its various pitfalls; however most of these films have used the point of view of the students themselves. Very few have examined it from the point of view of the teacher. Enter Class of 1984 from cult director Mark Lester (Commando) and writer Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child's Play), a frightening vision of a dystopian teenage wasteland that portrays a deteriorating, chaotic American education system corrupted by gang violence and apathetic administration. Sounds alarmingly familiar, doesn't it?
Andrew Norris is a young, naive music teacher who has been recently hired by Abraham Lincoln High School. His first day on the job serves as a rather rude awakening, as one of the first things he notices is the fact that his colleague (Roddy McDowall) carries a gun in his brief case. It soon becomes clear why: the school is overrun with disrespectful students, drugs, and gang violence. Public enemy number one is gang leader Peter Stegman, who is actually a brilliant musician. However, he's more concerned with pushing drugs, handling prostitution rings, and terrorizing other students. Before long, Norris finds himself at war with Stegman, as he makes a bold (and seemingly unheard of) move by standing up to him and his gang.
As someone who spent a year in the trenches as a high school teacher, I can speak to the veracity of the situation presented by Lester's film. Though I was (thankfully) never subjugated to the extremes experienced by Andrew Norris, the film does manage to capture the hopelessness, helplessness, and the shattered na´vetÚ of many teachers. Though everything here is amplified almost to the point of absurdity, there are kernels of truths to be found. There's a wonderful moment where Roddy McDowall's character breaks down and wishes that he could just reach one student. This is a frustration felt by many (if not all) teachers at one time or another; of course, not many end up holding their class at gunpoint to achieve their goal, but there's something very raw and human in that frustration. Similarly, the character of Stegman represents all those students who could be so much more, but choose to underachieve simply because they'd rather do something else.
While I'm certainly not one to condemn entire generations of people younger than me (after all, it's a practice that's been going on since Ancient Greece), there's no doubt that Lester was quite prophetic in his vision of the future, as the American education system has been corrupted; it should be noted that no one is let off the hook, including the apathetic principal who can't wait for his promotion, which he views as a ticket out of the hellhole that is Abraham Lincoln High. Such attention to detail shows that the system is corrupted throughout, and it's not just the fault of the students themselves. At the center of the story is Norris himself, who represents some sort of hope, as he's there to reach the kids that deserve better; the film shows that they especially are victims as well, as they're subjected to various physical and psychological torments.
As a piece of popular entertainment, Class of 1984 works well as a strange mash up of A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, and even The Hills Have Eyes to a certain extent. Lester's direction and visual style are flashier than you'd expect given the subject matter. Indeed, the gang members look like they were taken from the set of The Warriors at times, and there's a real punk aesthetic pervading the whole thing. Performances are solid throughout, with McDowell serving as the highlight; viewers should also be on the lookout for one "Michael Fox" (as he's billed here) before he became friends with Doc Brown and his DeLorian. Timothy Van Patten brings Stegman to life perfectly, as he's played with enough psychotic menace to earn the audience's loathing; however, there's also a hint of wasted youth and innocence to the portrayal that allows the character to serve as a site for all of the struggles in the film. Also of note is the presence of OTH-favorite Keith Knight (of Meatballs and My Bloody Valentine fame), who plays Barnyard, the gang's enforcer.
Those who are somewhat familiar with the film might question its place here at OTH, but make no mistake: when stripped of its metaphor and message, Class of 1984 essentially boils down to a revenge flick that feels like it was scraped off the sticky, filthy floors of the grindhouse. The final act is especially quite a bloodbath. Anyone at all familiar with the aforementioned films in the previous paragraph can probably guess that the film portrays the lengths that a normal man will go when he's pushed too far. By the end, the film feels a lot more like an exploitation film than it does a thoughtful warning about the education system, but it ultimately ends up working as both. While it's not quite as grim as many grindhouse classics (like the aforementioned Hills Have Eyes), it's rather shocking to see Norris's character devolve from a naive teacher to a bloodthirsty avenger.
A brutally honest and unflinching view of the deteriorating public school system, Class of 1984 actually offended many upon release, including one of its own screenwriters, Barry Schneider, who had his name removed after witnessing its violent content. Over the years, it's gone on to become a bit of a cult classic, and deservedly so; while it doesn't quite reach the heights of classic horror films, it's one of the more unique takes in the revenge/exploitation sub-genre. The film was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2006 in an impressive special edition package that features a solid anamorphic transfer and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby soundtracks. The latter actually sounded a bit superior to my ears, as the dialogue was a bit muffled and mixed too low in the 5.1 track. Special features include "Blood and Blackboards," a documentary on the film featuring interviews with cast and crew, an audio commentary with Lester, a trailer, two TV spots, a poster and still gallery, and the film's screenplay. Simultaneously entertaining, sad, and downright prophetic, Class of 1984 graduates with flying colors. Buy it!
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