The new music teacher at run-down Abraham Lincoln High School, pacifist Andy Norris (Perry King), clashes with student and gang leader Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), who declares the school as his own. The idealistic Mr. Norris soon becomes the main target of Stegman’s gang, as ongoing incidents build to a brutal showdown.
Director Mark Lester (Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Commando) puts plenty of substance into Class of 1984 to raise it above typical B-movie exploitation. In addition to frequent and brilliant use of foreshadowing, he balances the sleaze and violence with scenes that give dimension to the characters and earn our empathy – such as Norris and his wife (Merrie Lynn Ross) talking about their pregnancy and Roddy McDowall’s biology teacher, Mr. Corrigan, tearfully lamenting to Norris that he feels like a failure at his profession.
A large part of Class of 1984’s personality is its atmosphere. The grimy, graffiti-covered walls of the high school, paired with the eerie and synth-tastic score by Lalo Schifrin, create a setting of decay and grime that oozes off the screen.
King is perfect as the peaceful Mr. Norris, who tries in vain to play by the rules to have Stegman’s gang arrested. Van Patten portrays one of the most underrated sociopaths in B-movie history as the formidable Stegman, the gifted delinquent who runs his gang, the school, and even the town’s punk nightlife. And while it may seem like he’s slumming here, McDowall gives a terrific performance as the cynical Corrigan, bringing more depth and emotion to the role than expected in a film like this. (Best line, as he raises a drink in his classroom full of caged lab creatures after hours: “To the lower animals. They never kill each other without good reason.”)
Of course, films like Class of 1984 aren’t any fun if the good guy always plays by the rules, and Norris finally takes matters into his own hands – starting with trashing Stegman’s prized car and ending with a brutal, nighttime cat-and-mouse showdown in the catacombs of the high school during a band concert.
Normally, the violence displayed would be repulsive and reprehensible. But in the context of a movie like this, it’s delicious, depraved, and deserving. There are gruesome, over-the-top kills – including a final death that’s a literal showstopper.
Class of 1984 does have its shortcomings. There are one too many “nobody saw them do it” excuses by the school administration and the police for not arresting Stegman and his gang. Van Patten overdoes the “crazy eyes” at times when putting Stegman’s psychosis on display. And Ross’ portrayal as King’s expectant wife is underwhelming and more of a plot device than anything (Ross was once married to Lester).
Class of 1984 is exploitative B-movie fun. True, it has a still-relevant social commentary and a solid story at its core. But it’s the layers of sleaze, grime, and violence that make it a highly entertaining Trashterpiece.
* Co-writer Tom Holland wrote and directed two of the ‘80s biggest horror films: 1985’s Fright Night (also starring McDowall) and 1988’s Child’s Play.
* Lester often shoots Van Patten’s Stegman from below to make him more ominous, following D.W. Griffith’s adage, “Shoot from above for an angel; shoot from below for a devil.”
* Class of 1984 features an early film appearance by Michael J. Fox as Arthur, the innocent trumpeter torn between helping Mr. Norris or facing the wrath of Stegman and his gang.
Is it suitable for your kids?No. No it’s not. A big part of Class of 1984 is the violence, and it comes in many forms: People are bullied, stabbed, beaten, burned alive, dismembered, run over, hanged, and fall to their death. Two members of Stegman’s gang occasionally wear shirts featuring swastikas, and in one scene they do a mock Nazi salute as Norris takes attendance. There’s also strong use of profanities (including a few gay and racial slurs), a scene of full female nudity, drug and alcohol use, and a classroom of lab animals are shown mutilated after an act of vandalism.
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?I’d love to get my wife, a high school English teacher, to watch Class of 1984 and hear her thoughts (she has a music degree, and both of her parents are retired music teachers). However, I think the brutal violence of the film would be off-putting to her. If you can get your FilmMother to watch Class of 1984, be sure to share her reaction in the comments.
Class of 1984
* Director: Mark Lester
* Screenwriters: Mark Lester, John Saxton, Tom Holland
* Stars: Perry King, Timothy Van Patten, Roddy McDowall, Merrie Lynn Ross, Michael J. Fox
* MPAA Rating: R
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