I went to religious schools for most of my childhood. I always had a naïve and glamorous vision of that hotbed of sin and despair, the public school. I envisioned gang rumbles in the corridors, under-age coitus in any available closet, school-yard drug dealers, steroidal date-rapist jocks, sinister black boys with saggy pants and indecipherable accents, dead-eyed nymphomaniac cheerleaders, Satan-worshiping metal-heads, and science teachers who humiliate creationist students for fun. Public school—and particularly the inner city public school—was like Sodom and Gomorrah in my young mind.
So I grew up in terror and fascination of public school and so, unsurprisingly, developed a taste for school-yard sleaze flicks. School-sploitation includes films as diverse as Reform School Girls, School of the Holy Beast, and Switchblade Sisters, but the purest expression of my childhood public-school fantasy/nightmare is today’s specimen: Class of 1984.
It starts off like a standard high school movie. Mister Norris (Perry King) is the new music teacher at Lincoln High, a run-down, under-staffed inner city public school. Despite sub-par conditions, he finds many eager young minds. But if Mr. Norris is to inspire his students, he’ll have to stand up to Peter Stegman, the ringleader of the school’s toughest gang. Stegman controls the drug and prostitution rackets at school, and doesn’t like Norris pushing him around. However, underneath his dangerous exterior hides a troubled soul, and a musical genius.
From there, things get ugly.
Lincoln High isn’t just a school, it’s a war zone. The teachers carry handguns in their briefcases, students are herded through metal detectors at the school entrances, and they are monitored with security cameras (a nod to Orwellian dystopia hinted at in the title). The principal is a cringing coward and school security is pitifully inadequate.
Stegman keeps pushing Mr. Norris, trying to intimidate him into quitting his job. Mr. Norris refuses to budge. Before long, the tension explodes into bloody conflict. When his wife is endangered, Norris must do what the school officials can’t and the police won’t: teach Stegman’s gang a lesson.
Perry King plays Mr. Norris as a charming, slightly goofy intellectual, the kind of guy that listens to jazz and drink microbrews with funny names. He’s peaceful, idealistic, and naïve, but once he’s pushed too far, his rage and fear are thoroughly believable. His passionate delivery and occasional flashes of sarcasm make him a compelling hero.
Equally compelling, though hardly believable, Timothy Van Patten turns in a baffling performance as Stegman, the vicious leader of a punk gang. A misguided and confused sociopath, Stegman teeters between mopey introspection and gleeful sadism. The result is a confusing muddle of anti-hero and over-the-top villainy. We see hints at Stegman’s inner pain in the first act, but once the film nosedives into exploitation territory, he becomes a heartless sociopath, the type of un-complicated adversary we’d see in director Mark Lester’s later film Commando. I’m perfectly okay with that (Commando is awesome), but Van Patten keeps over-selling the tortured, misunderstood act. He’s fun to watch, but eventually you wish he’d cut the stilted philosophic whining (“Life…is pain. Pain…is everything. You…will learn.”) and get back to the arson and rape.
Still, there’s something charismatic about this strutting, preening, self-absorbed jackass. He’s silly, and sometimes down-right annoying, but he’s also intimidating (no mean feat for a skinny, poofy-haired pretty boy in a double-breasted tank-top). Even though Class of 1984 boasts one of the coolest villain gangs this side of The Crow and Robocop, Stegman is still the film’s most memorable villain.
Roddy McDowell classes up the joint as a gun-toting biology teacher, delivering a performance that’s at once poignant and (when channeled through his twitchy screen presence) extremely funny.
As it races towards it’s bloody climax, Class of 1984 (like its semi-inspiration, 1955‘s Blackboard Jungle) becomes increasingly preachy. Much is made about Stegman’s gang being protected as juveniles. While the themes of powerless police and soft-on-crime laws are identical to Right-wing gun porn like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, there’s an even more sinister message: that some teenagers are just rotten, and must be exterminated for the good of decent society. If the cops won’t do it, the citizens must. Heavy stuff, man.
Morally suspect though it is, Class of 1984 is still entertaining as hell. We get gang-rumbles, explosions, car-crashes, and a rock concert in a graffiti-scrawled rat-nest of a warehouse (featuring Canadian punk-rockers Teenage Head). The climax is nightmarish and exhilarating. The darkened corridors of Lincoln High take on a haunted-house atmosphere, offering infinite hiding places and echoing the taunts of the vile youngsters. All this atmosphere builds to a giddily violent payoff. The movie’s theme-song, performed by Alice Cooper, is a cherry on top of a glorious exploitation sundae.
What else can I say? Class of 1984 is just awesome. Highly recommended. See it with the wayward teenager in your life. (Keep a table-saw nearby, just in case.)