... aka: Curso 1984 (Course 1984)
... aka: Escola da Violência (School of Violence)
... aka: Guerrilla High
... aka: Os Donos do Amanhã (The Owners of Tomorrow)
Mark L. Lester
So I initially wrote three paragraphs on the history of U.S. school shootings and escalation of violence in American schools to preface this review. I was interested in seeing how this would be addressed in a film made nearly 40 years ago. What would this have to say about what fuels juvenile delinquency? What would the film propose as a potential remedy? And how would this stack up to where we currently stand as a country? After all, this was made nearly 20 years before the rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 that cost thirteen their lives. Since then, the frequency of school shootings has gone through the roof and been so prevalent in U.S. politics, news cycles and society in general that it would be interesting to see something about the same subject made before everything became so depressingly commonplace. Perhaps this would even be, dare I say, a bit prophetic? After viewing the movie, I then decided that the film isn't fit to be compared to real-life horrors. This is much more of a standard revenge / vigilante flick along the lines of Death Wish than something serious-minded, insightful and socially conscious that can actually be taken seriously. Set your sights accordingly and just keep repeating, "It's only an 80s vigilante movie. It's only an 80s vigilante movie. It's only an 80s vigilante movie..."
Andrew Norris (Perry King), coming from a small town in Nebraska, gets a new job as music teacher at the inner city Abraham Lincoln High School. Before even entering through the doors on his very first day, he catches biology teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) slipping a handgun into his briefcase. When asked why, Terry replies, "Where have you been teaching lately?" Inside the school, we see the now familiar sight of students shuffling through metal detectors, except it feels like the staff and security have long since given up caring so much. When Andrew tries to tell the guards that a student just slipped a switchblade through, Terry informs him that "If you want to survive around here, you've got to look the other way." Out of sight, out of mind. The school is overrun by drug pushers and violent, obnoxious punks. It's filthy, kids piss in the hallways and all of the walls are spray painted with profane graffiti. Drug deals take place openly in the hallways and restrooms. Punks curse out teachers and spend their whole day trying to disrupt class with little to no consequences. Apparently this particular school doesn't believe in permanent suspension as seemingly half the student body would qualify. It doesn't help matters that the guy running the place is an unbelievable moron, and he's just one of many almost cartoon-like failures of adult authority.
Andrew manages to get on the bad side of a punk gang led by sociopath Peter Stegman (Vincent Van Patten), the self-proclaimed "ruler" of the school, who shows up in class Andrew's first day making a scene. Peter's primary gang includes junkie Drugstore (Stefan Arngrim), bisexual pink-haired Patsy (Lisa Langlois), fat Barnyard (Keith Knight) and leather clad thug Fallon (Neil Clifford). After school, Andrew heads out to his car and finds it's been spray painted; with improper grammar even! The punks manage to get his home address, track him down and, wearing masks to disguise their identity, shoot him with water guns full of stage blood. After he catches them making a drug deal in the restroom, he informs the useless principal (David Gardner), who takes the punk's side! Soon after, a student who bought drugs from them climbs up the flagpole, recites the Pledge of Allegiance and then falls to his death.
Undeterred, Andrew stops the gang from pummeling model students Arthur (baby-faced Michael J. Fox in his film debut) and Deneen (Erin Flannery) in a back alley and incurs even more of their wrath. They punch him, cut Terry's hand with a razor and then show up at Andrew's home late at night to blow up his car with a Molotov cocktail! They then sneak into the school, slaughter every animal in Terry's lab and smear blood all over the walls. A consultation with a detective (Al Waxman) turns up long rap sheets on the punks, who've been hauled in there at various times for assault, gang activity, drug pushing, running a prostitution racket and rape. Still, nothing's been done and the cop assures Andrew that if charges were pressed they'd simply be back out on the streets in no time. Why? Well, because they're under 18. It's at this stage I just kind of stopped taking the film seriously. It's so outside of reality, preposterous and exaggerated, even with its slight futuristic setting, that credibility is already strained past the point of no return by the midway point.
When Andrew tries to confront Peter in the bathroom, the smarmy little shit goes so far as to smash his own face against a mirror, dryer and sink to frame Andrew for beating him. And, yet again, the principal takes the punk's word over his! You know, cause when someone with a long criminal record who runs a gang and has been kicked out of every other school he's attended for violent behavior goes up against someone with a pristine record, you naturally believe the proven violent criminal, right? Next thing he knows, Andrew is facing assault charges. He tries to talk sense into Peter's mother (Linda Sorenson) but, she too, is a short-sighted, borderline-delusional fucking idiot. Seems to be a recurring theme here. Peter and his gang even get away with stabbing poor Arthur in the middle of the crowded cafeteria and no one does a thing about it. Also rather peculiar that earlier in the film the school is shown to be monitored by cameras all over the place and yet we're to believe that not once have they caught Peter and this gang doing anything worthy of expulsion? Really?
Terry ends up having a complete nervous breakdown and holds his students at gunpoint forcing them to correctly answer questions or else face getting shot. Andrew manages to diffuse the situation and saves Peter's life in the process. Our teacher hero is then repaid for that kind gesture when the punks break into his home, take Polaroids as they gang rape his pregnant wife Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross, also an executive producer) and then take her captive. We pretty much know where this is headed as Andrew is forced to snuff out the punks one by one to save his spouse, which naturally has to take place primarily in the school's shop room and auto garage so handy tools are available for the slaughter.
The events aren't plausible for a second, which prevents us from taking any of this seriously. On the other hand, if you approach this as just a piece of exploitative trash, this is rather mild and there are far trashier, sleazier, gorier and more violent / action-packed movies of this type out there that make no bones about what they are. King and McDowall both give fairly good performances under the circumstances, but there's also something strangely reactionary and antiquated bubbling underneath the surface that rubbed me the wrong way. In some regards, this almost comes off like one of those hysterical 1930s "scare films." You know, the ones with laughably over-the-top, hyperbolic depictions of how having sex and smoking a little weed will ruin your life forever. The target here though are teenagers who have the audacity to go against what society wants them to be. Cause if you give these kids enough rope, they'll most certainly hang YOU. After they're done making a filthy, dirty cesspool of the entire world.
Because the punks are completely one-dimensional (the most vicious is given the lone character insight of being - gasp! - raised by a single mother) we are forced to take them as a collective whole meant to represent something. What that something is and whether that something is conscious or subconscious on the part of the makers I'm not so sure. But why are all of the polite, well-behaved model kids conservatively dressed in preppy attire while all of the vicious, violent, ill-mannered teens are all decked out in leather / punk attire? Their free expression, individuality, hair, clothes, loud music and basically the whole punk milieu with its anarchic implications is something the filmmakers clearly found threatening. They're so threatening, in fact, they're able to infect and drive McDowall's mild-mannered character completely bonkers to the point where he's an alcoholic eventually hitting the streets trying to run them over!
The true catharsis of this take-matters-into-your-own-hands fantasy comes from seeing the upstanding teacher slaughter all of the punks in various gory ways; making the world OK again. That's precisely why someone like Roger Ebert, who spent decades moralizing against the "unnecessary" violence in horror films, was able to give this 3 ½ out of 4 stars. He apparently preferred seeing unruly teens get their arms sliced off with saws and being torched alive by a rule-following authority figure as opposed to a masked maniac.
Despite taking place in the U.S. and having American flags flying all over the place, this was filmed in Canada. The theme song is "I Am the Future" by Alice Cooper and the Canadian punk band Teenage Head appear to perform part of a song at a club. Tom Holland wrote the original story and co-scripted the film. Since this was a hit in theaters and on home video, Lester returned with the much more sci-fi / horror-tinged CLASS OF 1999 (1990), which was then followed by Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994) by a different team. There have been a zillion VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases for this one from companies like Shout! Factory, Anchor Bay and Lionsgate in the U.S., 101 Films in the UK and CMV Laservision in Germany to name but a few.