ROCK N’ REEL: CLASS OF 1984

By Courtney Jerk & Max Dropout

[audio:http://www.youbettershutupandlisten.com/mp3s/fear_-_ lets_have_a_war.mp3]

In the years following the massacre at Columbine High School, nobody bats an eye at the thought of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, or security guards in high schools. But in the year 1982, these measures to ensure the safety and security of a student body would have been balked at by the majority of Americans, and the idea of kids bringing knives and guns into their class rooms to settle school yard tiffs was equally ludicrous. While Mark Lester’s �Class Of 1984� (its title, a nod to Orwell) may have seemed absurd at the time, it is now regarded as nothing short of prophetic with respect to the current state of our education centers. Barring the dated fashion, this story has become honest, though initially only a farfetched work of fantasy to some at the time of its release.

Native Nebraskan Andy Norris (Perry King) has just taken a job at a tough inner city high school, replacing a previous teacher who was met with an unfortunate demise, an incident that quickly earns the dubious title of “accident.” As we’re maneuvered through metal detectors we catch glimpses of drug deals, weapons smuggling, and sexually lewd behavior. Norris is befriended by Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall, who would team up with writer Tom Holland again for “Fright Night” in 1985), a skittish biology teacher who packs heat and relies on habitual alcoholism to get him through class.

While Norris is initially skeptical in regard to the status of the school and its degenerate student body, it’s not long before he clashes with Stegman, the leader of a drug-dispensing gang of neo-punk heavies who rule the roost with brutality. While most of the school’s faculty seem content to turn a blind eye to the social and moral crimes committed by this pack of predators, the idealistic Mr. Norris refuses to give in to their intimidation tactics.

After tossing the pack of wild teens out of his class on his first day at work, he later finds his car graffitied with “Teechers Sucks” in bold, cartoonish lettering. An ingenious bit of mockery, but nothing more than a harmless prank, which Norris dismisses relatively easily. However, as his efforts to put the gutter-trash-by-way-of-white-affluence in their place increase, the laughability of their attacks diminishes.

A line is soon established when Stegman, played by early 1980s prospect Timothy Van Patten (later to star alongside Lee Van Cleef in the short-lived network action series, “The Master”), appears in Mr. Norris’ class and demonstrates a worldly piano talent. A powerful and insightful scene, which breathes a bit of depth into his character, actually features Van Patten performing a piece he wrote for the film, entitled “Stegman’s Concerto.” Despite Stegman’s abilities, Norris’ opinion of Steg as a spoiled, noxious brat is unwavering, and he refuses to let him join the class orchestra — from here, it’s all out war on Steg’s part.

The piece itself is well constructed, and leaves one wondering why Patten never went on to score films himself, as it is a remarkable display of not only his prowess as a musician but also his impressive ability as a composer.

Of equal note is also an appearance by Canadian pop punk heavies Teenage Head, performing “Ain’t Got No Sense.” The scene, wherein Steg and his gang thrash around the crowd of pseudo-punkers, establishes their cultural affiliations and is perhaps the root of their ultra-nihilistic tendencies. Only a few films, such as Penelope Spheeris’ “Suburbia,” have ever really managed to capture the true spirit of punk club culture, the rest often missing the boat on the element of violence that many times permeates the atmosphere, never fully realizing its benevolence or acknowledging the communal spirit that keeps these shows from razing into all out riots. However, some girl shows her tits in this scene, and nudity is like an act of contrition in our book, so we’ll let it slide. But still, it’s a shame that punk culture is so often affiliated with the activities in which Steg’s gang engages; the venue itself also serves as a club house, where Steg and company sharpen their knives, recruit prostitutes, make drug deals, and assemble your typical villainous plots, which are probably more at home in a Scorsese drama.

Steg’s intellect is the main conductor of this symphony of insidious violence, and often prevents the group from ever landing themselves in hot water. Repeatedly using the legal status of their age, while managing to intimidate witnesses into a mute state, the group pushes their products and rapes at will through the school. Themes of vigilante-ism seem to be another strong message behind the film, suggesting that modern laws have become an effective weapon in the hands of criminals against innocents — a popular sentiment expressed by many action film makers at the time.

The group consistently evades the arm of the law by playing it smart… “Well, no one besides YOU saw them do it.” It continues this way for much of the movie: the gang targets Norris or one of his students (one of them being Arthur, played by a chubby, pre-”Family Ties” Michael Fox — no “J” yet), Norris attempts a counterstrike and is reprimanded by a helpless or apathetic authority figure; the group strikes again, Norris fights back, and so on.

In one particular scene, which is commonly deemed cheesy or unintentionally humorous, Corrigan walks into his biology lab to find his beloved rabbits roasted on spits like cooked chickens, and his cat suspended from the ceiling by a noose. Blood is smeared about on the walls. He never fully recovers from the emotional shock, and in a particularly-well acted scene, he forces the blubbering gang in his biology class to learn the material at gunpoint during a breakdown.

While the scene with the murdered lab animals is not bereft of humor, it is very much intentional in a twisted sort of way, i.e. the rabbits on the spits — har har. It’s sick, but obviously this was a cruel gag constructed to chip away at Corrigan’s already frayed wits. In fact, while this film is often discarded as cheesy, we continually fail to see exactly what is so campy, other than the fashion worn by the kids, which is indicative of what was popular at the time the film was made.

Things spiral out of control when Arthur is shanked in the school cafeteria, which is yet another display of the creative team’s unbelievably dark sense of humor. The irony of Arthur’s stabbing is that it very closely resembles a general population prison shanking, with several members of the gang causing a riotous distraction while another discretely runs Arthur through — the gang’s motive, of course, is the suspicion that Arthur was squealing to the authorities about a drug deal he witnessed, which led to the humorous flag-pole-dive death of his friend. Things come to a sick head though, when Norris’ pregnant wife is raped and kidnapped by Stegman and his cronies and used to lure him into the bowels of the school on the night of the school’s big orchestra recital.

During the final showdown, the film hyper-morphs into a hybrid of vigilante and slasher film as Norris gains the upper hand and dispenses of these punks in a number of bloody, torturous methods, including fatal expulsion by way of circular saw, which provides for one of the film’s many controversial scenes.

The finale features Stegman and Norris squaring off in a flurry of fisticuffs, where the young hood is knocked through a skylight above the school auditorium. In spite of all the grief that Steg has put his teacher through, Norris nearly succumbs to the lulling coo of Steg’s “Mr. Norris, please help me… I’m just a kid…” However, this turns out to be a mere ploy, to which Norris responds with a stiff left hook, sending Steg’s body into a series of ropes and pulleys.

Stegman literally crashes a school orchestra performance, smashing through the ceiling while strangling on some ropes looped around his neck. In a round about way, Steg actually wins — he made his recital appearance.

In addition to this film’s Orwellian hook, it also boasts a pretty cool soundtrack, the main point of interest being the opening song, Alice Cooper’s “I Am The Future,” written specifically for the film by Holland and Lester. We also get a few numbers from Fear (The classic “Let’s Have A War” and “Fresh Flesh”) blasting the halls, while other tracks of note include Jeff Baxter’s “Suburbanite” and Randall Bramlett’s “You Better Not Step Out of Line.” The song selection effectively lends a somewhat legitimate feel to the depiction of modern youth culture, while the club scene featuring Teenage Head is definitely one of the highlights of the film, be it all too brief.

“Class of 1984″ was banned in several states upon its release, due to the advocacy of vengeance, vigilante-ism, the nature of the storyline, and a few of the more disturbing scenes. There are currently two versions of the film available for rental or airing on cable tv — one without the rape, prostitute tryout scene, and circular saw death, and one with all these generally omitted scenes. Mark Lester returned the vague, over-the-top sequel “Class of 1999″; half of the story is a moral warning against a lack of discipline amongst current schools, while the other half is a warning against the dangers of technological automation. The plot itself is pure sci-fi, as robot teachers run amok in a high school of the none-too-distant future. While its predecessor is easily an underrated classic in the vein of Michael Winner’s Death Wish, “Class of 1999″ is unintentional hilarious fodder for late night malt liquor parties. The inanely titled “Class of 1999 2″ did the robot straight into video stores a few years after that.