Thursday, June 20, 2024

Massacre at Central High (1976)

... aka: Blackboard Massacre
... aka: Döden på college (Death in College)
... aka: Les baskets se déchaînent (Sneakers Go Wild) (?)
... aka: Massacre
... aka: Massacre no Colégio (College Massacre)
... aka: Massaker in Klasse 13 (Massacre in Class 13)
... aka: Sexy Jeans

Directed by:
Rene Daalder

On a 1981 episode of Sneak Previews where he was limited to highlighting just three films, Roger Ebert singled this out as one of his favorite "guilty pleasures," but there's nothing to feel guilty about here. This is simply a good movie. Despite the episode's supposed topic, Ebert clearly knew that himself or else he wouldn't have referred to it as "an intelligent and uncompromising allegory about the psychology of violence." Hence, not so much a "guilty pleasure" as a hidden gem, and this is one instance where it truly was hidden for awhile. It first got lost in a sea of sleazy, high school-set drive-in exploitation films popular in the late 70s and then got lost in a sea of slasher flicks once it was theatrically re-released in the early 80s. The latter issue reared its ugly head yet again when it hit home video, with VHS artwork trying to sell it as a slasher. People at the time were either disappointed by what they saw or pleasantly surprised.

There's some fun play with incongruity right out of the gate. The font used for the title screen screams After School Special, as does the cornball opening credits theme song "Crossroads" ("You're at the crossroads of your life... crossroads of your life... a runner chasing dreams... that could come true...like the pebbles on the beach... well within your reach..."). I honestly don't even know if the aggressive cheesiness was intentional or just a sign of the times but, regardless, it works as an amusing bit of contrast to what we'll see later on. In fact, that contrast is right in your face as the song fades and one of the first images we're greeted with is a swastika being painted on a high school locker.

Transferring to a new California high school, David (Derrel Maury) soon discovers he'll have more to worry about than first day jitters. Strangely, almost nobody will talk to him, or help him find stuff, or answer any of his questions. Nearly everyone is quiet, unfriendly or downright hostile, but at least he already knows, and is friends with, one guy there. Mark (Andrew Stevens) used to go to his previous school and owes David a "big favor" for helping him out of an unspecified previous jam, so he introduces him to the popular clique he normally runs with. Unfortunately, had said clique been around in WWII-era Germany they would have been called Hitlerjugend.

Referring to Bruce (Ray Underwood) as a mere bully doesn't quite do the guy justice. "Fascist dictator" or "merciless tyrant" is a little more accurate. He sets the rules. He tells people where they can park and who can talk to who, and decides who's worthy of everyone's malice. He's surrounded himself with a pack of yes men, like Craig (Steve Bond), Paul (Damon Douglas) and, yes, even Mark; all of whom help him enforce his rules. They're kind of like the gestapo, and these guys somehow seem to be everywhere; always watching, always listening, always breathing down the back of your neck. Anyone who's an individual or outsider, exhibits independent thought or defies the group, and anyone Bruce suspects may try to usurp his power, must be dealt with accordingly.

Rodney (Steven Sikes), whose main transgression against the group is having a junky mode of transport, will have an even junkier one after they carjack him and smash his vehicle up. "Lard ass" Oscar (Jeffrey Winner) is threatened with a switchblade in gym class and whipped with towels in the locker room. "Geek" Arthur (Dennis Kort) has the audacity to ask for a late fee and is pummeled with books while they trash the library. Spoony (Robert Carradine) has a little more spunk to him at least. As a sign of "social protest" he paints a swastika on Bruce's locker and then talks back at him ("You don't believe in free speech?") and all that gets him is a beating. Among the students, Theresa (Kimberly Beck - FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV) is one of the few who has somehow managed to maintain her identity, and the ability to voice her opinion, at least to a degree, but that's primarily because she's dating Mark and can use him as a shield.

If David were a weaker man, he'd accept the invite into the "in group" and just go along with them to make life easier on himself, but he's just not that kind of guy. Bruce senses it too right away. He now has some real opposition. Mark tries to pacify the group by telling them his buddy is simply "aloof," but that becomes increasingly difficult to believe as David continues to do his own thing. He befriends Rodney and helps him fix his wrecked car and steps in to save two girls; Mary (Rainbeaux Smith) and Jane (Lani O'Grady), from getting gang raped. David's influence also seems to be rubbing off onto Theresa, who starts becoming more outspoken.

While David can influence and inspire, he can't do it all alone and nobody is really stepping up to the plate to help him out ("Don't you people ever fight back?"). While he's underneath a car working one day, Bruce and his gang show up to confront him, knock the jack out and crush his legs, inadvertently kicking a hornet's nest in the process. David already has some anger issues and the only way he's been able to keep those reigned in is by religiously running. Now that he's crippled and that's not an option, what's he to do? Arrange for certain people to die in mysterious "accidents," that's what! After a hang-glider hits some power lines, water is drained out of a pool at an inopportune time and a van goes over a cliff, the reign of terror from Bruce and company ends.

Now that the school is free from their tyranny, another issue sets in: The uncertainty of what to do after being liberated and suddenly having no leader, no rules and complete freedom. How is order maintained, and fairness established, without gradually falling right back into the same abusive, oppressive system that Bruce and his gang were instituting? Well, according to this film, it isn't. It's a cycle bound to repeat indefinitely, just with new players. Victims become assailants, the previously marginalized become the new bullies, and everyone plots and schemes and engages in power plays until one of them claws their way back to the top of the pecking order and everyone else falls back in line. Rinse and repeat.

While a very promising English-language debut for Daalder, this unfortunately did not lead to much else of note from the Dutch-born director. The expected violence, sex and humor needed for commercial appeal are present and accounted for, but with a strong vein of social and political commentary to keep things consistently interesting. Once I caught on to where this was going and started paying closer attention to the characters and their dialogue / interactions is when I realized just how focused and well-structured the script is. 

Everything in here is essentially in support of a larger thesis statement... a pretty grim, though also very accurate, one. True freedom and equality for all scares the hell out of the supposed "freedom-loving" majority, who then start to crave the "structure" given to them by authoritarians and fascists, who are easily able to pivot into positions of power by promising to leave them alone and instead go after whatever powerless weak / poor / marginalized group(s) they can propagandize into enemies. So yeah, not much has changed here.

This is frequently compared to Michael Lehmann's black comedy Heathers (1988), which wasn't that well received upon release but now has a huge cult following and is one of the most popular comedies of the entire decade. Though the two films have some divergent commentary, I still think those comparisons are apt. Both feature a mysterious outsider / new boy in town threatening established high school hierarchy, the bullying, the dissatisfied member of the in crowd who revolts, the series of murders, the failures of adults / authority figures (the ones in Heathers are inept while they're completely absent here), right on down to the attempt to blow up the entire school at the very end. Considering this a precursor is absolutely not out of line, though Heathers is more pointed toward teen-specific issues.

After coming and going to little notice in 1976, a re-release four years later finally garnered this some attention, with Vincent Canby of the New York Times even singling it out as one of his twenty favorite movies of the year. It was also championed by the likes of Leonard Maltin and the aforementioned Roger Ebert. However, that apparently didn't help the director's career any. He wouldn't make his next feature, the seldom-seen Population 1 (1987), until over a decade later, and it wouldn't be until ten years after that he'd make another. None of his other films were as well-received as this one, though I personally got some enjoyment out of his weird, polarizing eco-thriller Habitat (1997).

The performances are uneven, but mostly serviceable. Stevens gives one of the better showings as the second male lead, who learns that doing what's right for yourself and just doing what's right aren't necessarily one in the same. The most effective performance here though is from the little-known Underwood, who's perfect in his nasty role. He'd go on to play another preppy, sociopathic jerk in the Carrie knock-off JENNIFER (1979) a few years later and sadly passed away in the early 90s before even hitting his 40th birthday.

Apparently Italian audiences of the day weren't the least bit interested in what the film had to say because they added hardcore sex inserts to turn it into a porno called Sexy Jeans. This version was also released to home video in the 1980s in Italy. Aside from that anomaly, I believe all of the rest of the releases, including the 2020 Blu-ray from Synapse, are the same. This was never a especially gory film so nothing really needed to be excised for rating's purposes on home video.

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