There were very few films I wasn’t allowed to see as a kid; zombie films were off the menu, as were a few other horror titles, but generally I was allowed to watch whatever I wanted from a very early age.
Class of 1984 was one of those aforementioned films that I was forbidden from viewing and I didn’t get it at the time; it seemed no worse than anything else I’d been allowed to subject myself to at face value. Having finally watched it, very belatedly – nearly forty years after it was made – I totally understand.
Music teacher Andrew Norris (played brilliantly by Perry King) takes a job at a high school overrun with crime; the chief perpetrators being a gang of delinquents run by the charismatic and – terrifyingly out of control – Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). Despite warnings from other faculty members (including an excellent Roddy McDowall as biology teacher Terry Corrigan) that he should turn a blind eye to Stegman’s gang and their criminal activities – including drug and prostitution rackets – Norris tries his best to deal with the problem. However, Stegman and his gang are not willing to budge – and with tensions rising inside the school as well as in the streets, the situation builds to a horrific, bloody climax.
Though definitely a product of its time, it’s actually quite shocking how normal some of the – supposedly extreme – measures the school has in place to deal with the issues of on-site violence are. Metal detectors, security guards and surveillance cameras for example – all are now commonplace in many American schools. Despite this fairly prescient element of the film, much of it feels like it’s unapologetically building a case for vigilantism, painting a picture of extreme behaviour that the authorities can’t deal with – including murder and sexual assault – because the perpetrators are under age and no witnesses will come forward. It becomes laughable under even the slightest scrutiny; Stegman and his goons carry out their activities so brazenly that there’s no way they would get away with their horrendous crimes for so long. It’s an alarmist, reactionary tale that paints a fairly bleak picture but the reality is that, despite how much it tries to shock the audience into believing otherwise at the start and in marketing material, it’s only a very small minority of students who are responsible for all of the violence and other crimes at the school.
The film also suffers a little from the eternal cinematic problem of not knowing what age teenagers are either, with a new recruit to Stegman’s gang declaring himself to be 14, but looking at least ten years older than that – and at least one of the lackeys looking like he’s pushing 30. A young Michael J. Fox, just before he hit the big time in Family Ties (and credited as Michael Fox) is one of the few convincing teenagers – though even he was in his early 20s here.
One particular sequence of a kid, who’s been sold drugs by the gang, ascending the school’s flagpole before falling to his death accompanied by the stars and stripes, is an example of the subtlety you can expect from Class of 1984. Which is to say: none.
Stegman is a talented musician – in one scene we see him play the piano beautifully – this is rarely capitalised on and instead, it’s the only glimpse of real humanity we get out of the bunch of animals they’re presented as. They wear clothes emblazoned with swastikas, pick fights over drug territory on school grounds with an entirely African American, rival gang and they kill innocent animals to make a point. The film even resorts to using a horrific sexual assault (and full disclosure here: it’s a disturbing, pretty sustained and fairly graphic sequence) as the catalyst for what finally pushes Norris into a ‘justified’ rampage of revenge.
There’s a few really powerful sequences too, which don’t rely on sex or gore to make their point. McDowall’s Corrigan – having been pushed over the edge by a devastatingly horrible act of violence and cruelty by the gang – giving his class a quiz at gunpoint, is one such scene that lingers long after the credits roll.
Despite it being problematic, exploitative and often just ridiculously black-and-white in terms of its political stance, it’s more than competently made; director Mark L. Lester does a fantastic job of building the tension over the course of the film to a near unbearable degree, until – when the tables are finally turned – it becomes extremely cathartic. Lalo Schifrin’s score, as is to be expected, is excellently utilised too (though the Alice Cooper theme song is awful – one does wonder why, if they were using Cooper anyway, they didn’t just use School’s Out).
The melodramatic, increasingly schlocky script is truly elevated by Lester’s handling of the material, Schifrin’s soundtrack and some excellent performances from the cast.Seeing the beaten, bloodied Norris finally being able to get the upper hand is genuinely satisfying; the film doesn’t skimp on the very graphic gore here either, with the climax feeling much more like a slasher movie than the violent, school-based crime drama of the previous two acts.
Though it ends on a genuinely stupid caption that echoes the level of inept and apparently forensics-bereft police work done throughout the film (and the filmmakers intent appear as though they’re giving you a true story) Class of 1984 does so well in dialling up the tension and the escalating, horrific battle of will between teachers and students – making Stegman and his minions into such hateful bastards – that you can’t help but be relieved at the finale. Subtle and believable it ain’t, but it’s a memorable, well made, undeniably violent thriller of the sort that was so prevalent in the 80s – and which thrived in the home video rental market that absolutely exploded during that time. Class of 1984 is essentially Death Wish in a school setting; like that film, it goes to some pretty shocking extremes to justify teacher Andrew Norris’s equally shocking actions. And, perhaps troublingly, we’re with him all the way.
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