Some movies appeal to the intellect and others go for the heart.
Or, in the case of Class of 1984, right for the jugular.
This visceral 1982 exploitation film lives up to its sub-genre in spades. Mark Lester's Class of 1984 gamely exploits widely-held "generation gap"-styled fears, happily stokes extreme paranoia and anger towards failed American institutions (such as the police and public school sysstems) and finally descends into bloody violence the likes of which one usually expects to see only in a rape-and-revenge film
Given the film's emotional approach to its subject matter, it's an authentic surprise that Class of 1984's most valuable player is not a bomb thrower (like Van Patten's effectively dramatized gang leader, Stegman), but a perfect gentleman. The late Roddy McDowall here plays a put-upon biology teacher, Terry Corrigan, just about at the end of his rope. McDowall crafts his character with the sensitivity and intelligence one expects from this great actor. In fact, his performance grounds Class of 1984 in understandable, relatable humanity, when only blood and guts appeared to be on the syllabus.
And yet even McDowall's appeal is an emotional, not intellectual one. We feel the guy's pain almost as our yet, yet still want to ask him logical questions like: how about looking for another job? Or not attempting vehicular homicide...?
But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it indeed looked like things were falling apart to some folk, and this element of American culture played into the fear about the future, and the future generation. New York City became a hub for urban blight and ruin in efforts such as The Warriors (1979), Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Escape from New York (1981) and Wolfen (1981).
In terms of teens, about a thousand murders a year were committed by them in 1982, and the trend grew worse until about 1994, when the trends sharply reversed. But the early 1980s remains the age of an irrational fear of teenagers, some of whom were even termed "super predators" in the mainstream press. Similarly, the media often recounted horrific tales of skyrocketing drug abuse and prostitution among teens. This Zeitgeist is perfectly captured by student thug Stegman's immortal line (put to music by Alice Cooper in Class of 1984):
"I am the future."
At home, Dadier's wife, Ann (Anne Francis) suffers from extreme anxiety over her husband's teaching assignment, and this anxiety could jeopardize her pregnancy. During the course of the film, a gentle math teacher, played by Richard Kiley, sees his record album collection destroyed by the out-of-control students. The film ends with Dadier earning the respect of his students after winning a knife-fight with Artie.
Specifically, a title card informs audiences that "last year" (presumably 1981...), there were "280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers and classmates." The card concludes with an ominous note; that the "following film is based partially on a true event." And yes, the word "partial" certainly leaves the filmmakers quite a degree of wiggle room, and they exploit the loophole to its fullest.
This fact (ahem) is abundantly untrue in our legal system, and has never been true in our legal system, as I hope discerning viewers would realize. Eyewitness accounts, forensic science (finger prints!) and even confessions are also helpful when putting away bad elements. Much of Class of 1984's emotional argument about bad kids stems from this fully-expressed idea of helplessness; this idea that even the law itself is powerless to stop teenage super predators on the rampage. It's the same irrational thought that underlines much of the cinema of Charles Bronson, and appeals mainly to paranoids. Our laws just protect criminals!
This idea is literalized when, during a brilliant concert performance of the 1812 Overture by the school band, Stegman's corpse -- hanged by a rope -- breaks through a stain glass window on the ceiling.
In other words, the students who have done well and achieved a victory in the concert see their thunder utterly stolen by the bad kid...one more time. But Class of 1984 doesn't recognize this. It treats the finale as a triumph, a victory. It is, I suppose, in the sense that Stegman dies and Norris and his wife survive. But what about the kids who staked their futures on the concert?
A better ending, I submit, would have seen Norris dispatch the gang, and then return to conduct the orchestra triumphantly. Instead, the movie just reinforces the idea that good kids get lost in the battle, and are treated with less importance than the bad ones. Since the film makes you root and support the music students, the visual reiteration of the school principal's negative point is odd and counterproductive, to say the least.
Class of 1984 is an effective and brutal little film, one that activates the primitive impulses of your mind, and makes you absolutely long for vengeance. This blood lust is achieved not just through violent acts, but through some pretty fine acting. Once more, I must pinpoint Roddy McDowall's performance, which lifts the whole enterprise. In particular, he has a scene in which he explains to King's newcomer, Norris, why he became a teacher in the first place. It was to touch young lives in a meaningful way, to offer students a real connection to a world larger than their concerns. But his hopes have been quashed and destroyed. The students of Lincoln High want nothing from Corrigan. Nothing. There's no fact, no theory, no idea, no message about life that he can impart to them, and so his life has become meaningless.
In these two scenes, McDowall affords Class of 1984 its human heart. I realize that movies such as this one don't get nominated for Academy Awards, but goddamn if McDowall didn't absolutely deserve one for his work here. Sometimes the great work of an actor involves not taking high-falutin material and simply giving it just due, but working on a more problematic script, and elevating the whole affair. As foolish, illogical and anger-baiting as the rest of Class of 1984 remains, McDowall represents a stark contrast. Through Corrigan, we see the human toll on the teachers at Lincoln High, and this quality absolutely grounds the picture and makes it more than a simple reach for blood lust.
I think that's because, inherently, all human beings covet justice. We want to see the good rewarded and the bad punished. And yet our legal system doesn't universally reach a just conclusion. So we get angry when we see bad people get away, and good people hurt. We get angry when we see the law, and our schools, and policemen, fail in what we perceive as their duty.
On this front, Class of 1984 turns Stegman into an absolute monster, one who has escaped the law and operates with no fear of being caught. By the end of the film -- after gang rape and other crimes -- you really do thirst for the deaths of the gang members. The film obliges in a glorious, bloody denouement.
You may regret your blood lust after the film ends, but during it, Class of 1984 brilliantly plucks all the right notes of indignation and outrage. It certainly leaves you feeling...emotionally sated.
In my book, irrationality aside, Class of 1984 gets a passing grade. But Roddy is the one who did all the extra credit.
Next week: Poltergeist (1982)