"When does a dream become a nightmare?" - from Alice Cooper's title song
"Security! Two dope smokers in One-West!"
Class of 1984 (1982) isn't as good as it might have been but it also rises above the exploitation sleaze labeling that sold it to enthusiastic Times Square audiences and shell-shocked suburbanites when it was new. Basically an updating of Blackboard Jungle (1955) to the punk generation, the film aspires to the same thoughtful exploration of violence within a legally-neutered society that the much-underrated and misunderstood Death Wish (1974) had been, but in the end goes for cheap if highly satisfying revenge sequences more akin to Death Wish 3 (1985).
Naive but earnest music teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King) arrives at Abraham Lincoln High School and on his first day is shocked to find the place swarming with ineffectual security, useless metal detectors, open drug dealing in the hallways, and graffiti covering every available inch of wall space. Asked about his predecessor, Andrew's ominously told, "They say he had an accident. They say he fell down the stairs...."
Despite a few rosy-cheeked, eager-to-learn students like Arthur (Michael J. Fox) and Deneen (Erin Flannery), Andrew's best efforts are thwarted by the school's all-controlling gang of hoods, led by vile Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), a juvenile delinquent whose mini-empire includes dealing coke and pimping out of a local punk club. By the end of the day Andrew has little to show for his work, except a car with "Teechers Sucks!" spray-painted on its hood.
Despite the concerns of wife Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross, also executive producer) and ready-to-crack biology teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), Andrew remains steadfast in his determination to reach the reachable teenagers, ambitiously planning a high school concert (featuring the 1812 Overture no less) with his understandably uneasy orchestra. At home Andrew looks forward to his and Diane's first baby: "I'm in my 73rd day and everything's perfect!" she says. This is called foreshadowing.
Class of 1984 clearly is a film trying to juggle sincere ambitions with B-movie commerce. The film isn't really all that different (in the good sense) from Blackboard Jungle, stating the same concerns with an early-'80s perspective. And just as Blackboard Jungle genuinely scared the bejeezes out of Middle America, Class of 1984 was pretty strong stuff in 1982, and would probably get an NC-17 if re-rated today.
The film's outrageously violent revenge climax, coming after nearly 90 minutes of unrepentant mayhem on the part of the teen-thugs, is a definite crowd-pleaser and emotionally logical, but shoots more holes into its last act than Dick Cheney did to his hunting partner. An upbeat postscript about our hero was doubtlessly met with cheers from the audience but doesn't hold up to even minimal scrutiny.
As the documentary accompanying the movie makes clear, director Mark R. Lester (not the former child star) clearly loves movies and this genre in particular, which helps explains the pastiche feel, with elements drawn from all over the place, from A Clockwork Orange (1971) and To Sir with Love (1967), to both The Warriors and the (much-superior) The Wanderers (both 1979). Some scenes are well-handled while others are clumsy and overdone, such as one bit where a kid tripping on Stegman's dope climbs the school's flagpole and falls to his death, symbolically wrapped in Old Glory. Overall though, Lester does a fine job with both the action set-pieces and the uniformly good performances.
Perry King, Michael J. Fox and others in the cast are all fine, but the film really belongs to McDowall, whose disenchanted educator is finally pushed over the edge and, in the film's most memorable scene, teaches his biology class at gunpoint, threatening to blow away anyone who answers his questions incorrectly. It's a marvelous scene, and as he often did McDowall infuses it with a marvelous mixture of eccentric sympathy.
Video & Audio
Class of 1984 is presented in 1.77:1 widescreen, approximating its original 1.85:1 release, in a decent transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs. The image is typical of the early-1980s: grainy with tepid color, and the title elements are more so, but overall the image looks quite good. A Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is offered, as well as its original Dolby Surround 2.0. Both are nevertheless limited, as the original sound is still a little weak, though again the audio squeezes out what it can. There are no subtitles options.
Included is an Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Mark L. Lester and DVD Producer Perry Martin. It's not bad, but better is the 35-minute/16:9 documentary Blood and Blackboards which adds stars Perry Martin and Merrie Lynn Ross to the mix. The documentary is full of interesting information about the production (the budget was $3 million, a Canadian tax shelter deal, and shot in 42 days), casting (Dennis Weaver was first offered McDowall's part), and shooting at a real school (in Toronto).
Also included are a Trailer and two 30-second TV Spots. There's a good Poster & Still Gallery, a thorough Biography of Mark L. Lester written by Frank H. Woodward, and a copy of the screenplay via DVD-ROM.
Appropriately, trailers for Vice Squad (4:3 16:9), Bad Boys, and Heathers (16:9) are included.
In the end, Class of 1984 is pretty entertaining if violent and bleak. In some ways the film has become as dated as High School Confidential! (1960) was by 1982 but its earnest desire to rise above exploitation expectations keep it interesting.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.