Rises above its exploitative roots with its setting, its characterisation and pure, naked verve
1984. Over thirty years ago. A decade of decadence and one that was prophesised by George Orwell with the phrase 'Big Brother is watching you'. Whilst that did not come to pass then (though it has now!) another startling prediction was wrought from tonight’s feature – that of school children out of control, where a class room is more a battle field and where students and staff are at war. Back in 1982, when the film first hit theatres there were already cases of student violence, overcrowding, vandalism and weapon control; and now it is even more prevalent with the added horror of massacres thrown into the melting pot. Director Mark Lester maintains his film was a warning (one that has come to pass) but it was also a neat idea that hit a salient mark and one that not only had relevance on its first showing but also has the same some thirty years later. Despite the music, costume and style which do tend to date the picture, the story could have been from today – boiling down to rape/revenge or survival – but placing it in the heady conscript of high school not only adds pertinence but also urban horror. And thus Class of 1984 taps into a mix of genres but comes out feeling fresh and has easily maintained its cult notoriety; the fact that it is also quite prophetic is the icing on the cake. Let us dive in, then, and sample its delights.
Andrew Norris is a young up-and-coming music teacher; he is ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’, eager to start his new job and enthusiastic about imparting his knowledge to new students. Things, however, almost immediately set the alarm bells ringing when he spies, in the briefcase of a fellow teacher, a handgun. Norris is played by jobbing character actor Perry King as a square jawed, all American hero standing up for what is right – only it is not what is right that counts, but what you can prove; especially when you are dealing with high school students that know how to play the system. It is through Norris’ eyes that we view the film, a man out of his depth, but with justice on his side as he stands up for what he believes; and it is that pride that will see him fall, for he suffers terribly at the film's climax. He doesn’t so much as have a journey as a roller-coaster ride. The script has him mindful of his students, believing in the system and in the inherent good within, and it is this conceit, despite all the horror around him, that keeps him at the job, teaching the class when most normal people would just move on. It is this bruised ego and helplessness that King expresses, which the film uses as its hook to hold the audience's suspension of disbelief – he does an excellent job of holding it. This is no ‘Rambo’ (had to wait a bit longer for him and his ilk to come along) ex-Vietnam Vet. with an arsenal of weapons and the knowhow to use them; Norris is a school teacher, very much in the vein of David Sumner in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, who, when pushed to his limit, fights back with murderous intent – both, incidentally, driven to act by the attack on their respective partners.
Thus Norris is an everymen, seeing the out of control school kids as exasperating – the few bad apples spoiling the common good and being powerless to defend the weak due to the corrupting influence of the system and the way it can be played by the unscrupulous. Consistently Norris comes up against the same wall; that the law is on the side of the student, something that is all too real nowadays, where, armed with that knowledge the student is king. As a side step, the current trend of Universities is to bow to the will of the student, as institutions are terrified of upsetting, or being seen to rule against them, undermining the value of the courses and the very educational system set up for them in the name of keeping league places! In American institutions the situation is compounded by the gun laws; how many times has tragedy struck and a climate of fear rules In 1984 it is the law’s inability to hold, prosecute or even reprimand the thugs that hold the school to ransom that is the catalyst for the mayhem that ensues.
The antagonist in all this is one Peter Stegman. A vicious thug and leader of the head gang in the school, a near ‘godfather’ of crime who enforces his drug and prostitution rackets in the school with an iron fist. And, in a delicious irony, Stegman is not uneducated, he is an accomplished pianist who is at one point shown to crave acceptance into the school band. This short scene speaks volumes about the underlying electricity between protagonist and antagonist and hints at, perhaps, understanding as the key to acceptance. Up until this point, Stegman has been nothing more than the street thug, vicious gang member we know him to be, thwarting Norris at every turn and rightly, given these facts, Norris expels him from his class. When Norris enters his class band into a national competition and Stegman comes crashing into the lesson wanting to join, Norris, quite rightly again, says no. It is at this point that Stegman shows his prowess at the piano, not only is Norris impressed, but so is the class. For a brief few seconds they are student and teacher, both impressed and respected by the other; it is only when Stegman demands to be part of the ‘gig’ and Norris’ refusal that their respective downfalls begin.
Stegman is played by Tim Van Patten who is now a very well respected TV director with the likes of Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos, Game of Thrones and The Wire to name but a few under his belt. In this part of his career he was acting and Stegman is a mass of contradictions that this one scene exposes, otherwise he would just have been a simple cartoon villain. The longing for acceptance and the hate filled agony at refusal crack open the shell of his psyche and expose a very human trait, that of wanting to belong. How different would Stegman’s life have been had he been allowed to join the band, would he have become a productive member, given up on his life of crime (or perhaps used it to augment it?) and thus helped to have won the school some prestige, even clean it up a little? We will never know as Norris, perhaps seeing a chance at hurting the person who has hurt him too often, or having reached the end of his tether, or thinking that he would never fit into the class or band, refused his entry. Perhaps Norris is not the ‘good’ teacher after all. Perhaps he is as petty and vindictive as those he despises? In these brief few seconds of film the ideas behind the stares are so complex, so seething with electricity and so steeped in pathos that for one brief and glorious moment Class of 1984 reaches far above its station to become a message. Of course this scene is pivotal in the other sense, from this moment on Stegman is out to ruin Norris and the method he chooses is the most reprehensible; going after the person he loves and viciously attacking her.
Produced and directed by one Mark Lester (of Firestarter (1984) and Commando (1985) amongst many others, fame) he maintains that this is his best film; and it is easy to see why, not only prophetic and telling, it is well paced, action orientated, suitably horrific and strikes a chord with anyone who sees it. Supposedly based on ‘true events’ (in truth the events only inspired certain scenes – the police detectives speech about ‘holding hands with juveniles if you want to prosecute them’ and the pistol in the briefcase – and like a true pro the scenes become exaggerated for drama, thus the police become themselves handcuffed and the teacher holds his class to ransom for knowledge. But both add very much to the dramatic tension of the whole film. Indeed the whole thing is extremely well paced, with each scene building on the preceding to tell a very efficient story. If, however, there is one negative it is the era in which it was made bleeds into the fabric of the film. Punk was becoming very big in America in the early eighties, as such all the gangs are of that ilk. That and the filming style of soft focus and well lit set pieces is also telling. There is an argument to be made that this adds to the charm of the film – though when you are looking at sawn off arms and gang rape, charm might not be the right way to go…
Upon its initial release, as well as being extremely well received, it did have a lot of trouble finding a distributor, as the subject matter was contentious as well as being very violent. In the end it was actually distributed independently and made all the more money because of it. Finding an audience with the kids who empathised with the villains and the adults who sided with the teachers, the film was made to be enjoyed by everyone, if enjoyed is the right word. Because, as just stated, it has some very contentious scenes. Whilst the ideas of a man being pushed to the limit and fighting back was nothing new in cinema, the fact that the man is a teacher and the setting is his own school, makes for some very uncomfortable viewing – he is essentially executing minors, no matter how grotesque their behaviour. And their behaviour can be very grotesque indeed. Their attacking of Norris’ wife and the quite explicit gang rape, filmed mostly from her point of view, intercut with Norris expectantly waiting for her to arrive at the recital, is skin crawlingly reprehensible, and is by far the most powerful scene of the film. Once experienced there is little course of action but for Norris to go native on those responsible and thus begins the massacre.
I first saw Class of 1984 on unregulated (probably pirated) VHS around 1984 and it has stayed with me ever since. It is due to the film's innate ability to get under your skin that makes it such a thrilling, horrific and fascinating watch. It’s like seeing a car crash on a motorway; you can’t look away. And the fact that it has the deeply embedded messages elevates it above the exploitation movie it so clearly is. And yet, it is so very well acted, not only by both the leads, but by those incidental to the main thrust. The eminent Roddy McDowall plays biology teacher Terry Corrigan, it was he with the pistol in his briefcase and it is he who becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses. He effortlessly portrays a once dedicated teacher who is now worn beyond his breaking point. When his pets are maimed he, much like Norris will do soon, takes the offensive and ‘teaches’ the class at gunpoint, then later at night he uses his car as his weapon of choice. So good is McDowall in the role that he steals every scene he is in just by looking worn out. OK, so the students, both gang members and Norris’s class, do have stereotypical traits, but those that are featured do make their mark. For example this was one of Michael Fox’s first films (he has yet to adopt the J in his name) who was effortlessly the class clown nearly murdered by the gang after they think he has informed on them.
For what is a grubby early eighties film with a one sentence premise, Class of 1984 has certainly survived the test of time. By tapping into a social anxiety, that of unruly kids running riot (that have been a staple through filmic history) where it manages to rise above its exploitative roots is with its setting, its characterisation, with respect to the leads, and its pure, naked verve.
Once seen, never forgotten.
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