Class of 1984 (1982)

With the recent box set release that contained Penelope Spheeris's 1980 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which chronicled the 1979 hardcore punk scene in Los Angeles, it is interesting to again be reminded of how that scene really scared parents and society at the time.  While Decline offered performances and some frank looks at the bands and how they lived (as well as their fans), they mainly came off as misguided youth that you knew were going to be stuck in office jobs after a few years, looking at their safety-pinned jackets with sad nostalgia.

Class of 1984 is pure exploitation of the fear that America had of their youth at the time, despite the fact the film is Canadian.  The city it is in is unnamed (although, being Abraham Lincoln High School, it's hinted that this is supposed to be the United States).  While some may see some parallels with what we see on the news about teenagers of today, the truth is the newspapers and local television stations did their best to exploit the most outrageous stories for ratings just as they do now.  Thus, this movie is a combination of that sort of exaggeration combined with your typical revenge story.

Andrew Norris (Perry King) has taken a job as the music teacher at Lincoln High School, replacing the previous teacher who had an "accident."  He is quickly introduced to the reality of the school by biology teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), who is disappointed with his career and is happy to just go along to get along.  He tries to convince Andrew to do the same, despite the new teacher's concern about students sneaking weapons past the metal detectors, painting graffiti all over the song and generally running roughshod over the little security the school has.

Principal Morganthau (David Gardner) is no help either, stating that nothing can be done to the students unless they are caught in the act.  His main concern is lasting as long as he can so he can get out of his position and into a seat on the school board.

Despite all this, Mr. Norris decides to do his best to make things better.  He first encounters Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) in his music class, where he finds it just fine to hang out with the rest of his gang.  Andrew throws them all out and quickly makes a connection with trumpeter Arthur (Michael J. Fox) and his friend Deneen (Erin Noble), the latter who has filled in conducting the school orchestra due to the previous teacher not caring much.

Mr. Norris makes his best effort to bring Stegman and his cronies to justice, confronting them during a drug deal in a bathroom that finds Arthur and his friend Jimmy (Joseph Kelly) involved.  Again, the principal refuses to do anything, despite it is common knowledge that Stegman's gang is also involved in the drug and prostitution trade off campus as well.  The deal results in Jimmy climbing the flag pole and falling to his death.

While Andrew tries to change things, the gang steals the faculty's records and begins to harass him at his home, concerning his wife Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross), who is pregnant with their child.  When the gang attacks Arthur and Deneen due to fears that they may have snitched about the deal, Norris and Corrigan intervene, resulting in them being injured and Corrigan's lab animals, one of the few things that keep him grounded, being butchered.

As things escalate, Norris's car is torched, and the police react in much the same way as the principal.  It is in fact Norris who comes under fire when he confronts Stegman, only to have the boy cause harm to himself and claim it was Norris that beat him up.  An attempt to come to terms with Stegman's mother fails, and things become more desperate once Arthur is stabbed during a cafeteria fight. In addition, the stress finally gets to Corrigan, who ends his career by giving the class a pop quiz and gunpoint and then attempting to run down Stegman and his gang.

Despite all of this, Norris pushes ahead with a concert by the school orchestra, whom he has worked hard with.  Stegman, however, has other plans.  The group gang rapes and kidnaps Diane, leading to Norris having to put an end to their reign of terror once and for all.

I think with the recent revival in interest of low budget and exploitation films many viewers have been disappointed after seeing these older films, as the new ones inspired by them go for painting the walls in blood and doing anything and everything to shock.  In many cases, the most shocking thing about many older exploitation films was their title, their movie poster and their supposed plot, which usually turned out to be something much different.  It was usually marketing to get people out to see films that were usually not much more than TV soap operas with a little blood and nudity.

I think the reason Class of 1984, dated as it is, has survived as such a popular movie is because it delivers what is promised.  There is still a slow boil to where we get to the most shocking points, but there is never a point where things begin to drag.  No matter what, the scene with McDowall teaching at the point of a gun will always be burned into my memory, and something brings me back to this film whenever I get a chance to see it.

And to clarify - this was supposed to be a warning about inner city schools and students of the day, not some future time.  The students portrayed (although they are all obviously in their 20s) are supposed to be 16, which in 1982 would have literally made them the graduating class of 1984.  I am sure the distributors knew the significance that 1984 did (and still kind of does) has on the public imagination, but that wasn't the intention.  It often gets confused with the sort-of sequel Class of 1999, which is set in the (then) future and deals with robot teachers run amok.  Just for the record, it is worth seeing as well.

Just to be clear, this movie, memorable as it is, still is no masterpiece, but a quite memorable (and enjoyable) relic of the 1980s, just like the music in it, which includes a theme song from Alice Cooper during his new wave period.

Class of 1984 (1982)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Perry King, Timothy Van Patten, Michael J. Fox, Roddy McDowall, Merrie Lynn ross
Director: Mark L. Lester


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