School's Out Forever in 'Class of 1984'

by Imran Khan

14 April 2015

Aiming for an incisive social commentary on the increasing violence of youth gangs, Class of 1984 falls short.
 
cover art

Class of 1984

Director: Mark L. Lester
Cast: Timothy Van Patten, Perry King, Roddy McDowall, Lisa Langlois

US DVD: 14 Apr 2015

It’s hard to dissect and review a film once it passes over into the questionable domain of cult status. It means that much judgement is dispensed on the account of what the film signifies in retrospect rather than the true merits of the film itself, if there are any. Nostalgia may supersede hindsight, which means the readings then tend to be a lot more emotional than they are rational in their critiques of what is actually being presented. This may explain why a film like Class of 1984 has had a curious flush of enthusiastic reactions since it was rescued from VHS obscurity a few years back in DVD form. A gritty, campy punk-rock thriller relegated to exploitation status upon its 1982 release, Class of 1984 has survived years of near anonymity thanks to the cult-trash aficionados who have kept the film alive, either by hanging onto their dog-eared VHS copies of the film or in memory alone. 

So what makes Class of 1984 such a memorable exercise in early ‘80s camp? Is it the hopelessly outdated hairstyles? The equally outdated clothes which still resonate with disaffected cool today? The shameless panty-stripping of teenage actresses and the subsequent stripping of any dignity once they realized they would be immortalized on film playing a coke-whore? How about the barefaced propaganda promoting adolescents as hormonal miscreants with too much time to spare? Does the appearance of a young, fresh-faced Michael J. Fox with a ghastly pageboy haircut have anything to do with it? If anything, what makes Class of 1984 stick in the mind is probably the fact that it is very much a relic of its time; every conceivable trope of early ‘80s teen culture can be found here. As such, it’s not without amusement that one can say that the film entered some moment of his teenage life (no matter how insignificantly) if he’s lived long enough to remember the soiled stain it left on the fringes of ‘80s popular culture.

Class of 1984 is essentially the story of an entire district, including the local high school and surrounding neighbourhoods, that has been overrun by dangerous punk-rock loving teens that are armed, stoned, bored, and probably unwashed. There isn’t a frame in this film that doesn’t reek of some kind of filth, whether it’s the grime and graffiti that is streaked across every square inch of the school walls or the sleaze and grease that seems to glisten off of these uncoordinated magnates of death. No clean space is left untouched, and this claustrophobic deathtrap is where protagonist Andrew Norris (Perry King) makes his entrance.

A timid, concerned and quietly enthused young music teacher, Norris gets his first taste of inner city life when he first steps foot into Lincoln High and immediately discovers the alarming protocol in place: set up at the school entrance are registered guards stationed at metal detectors (a practice in schools unheard of in 1982). Every other kid, it seems, has some weapon on him or her. Norris meets fellow faculty member Terry Corrigan (Roddy Mcdowall), a meek and embittered biology teacher, who pointedly tells Norris that in order to survive, he’d best look the other way when the students start acting up. When Norris has a disruptive run-in with the school’s murderous punk gang led by Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), he quickly comes to understand Corrigan’s sage warning.

Mark L. Lester’s film aims for some incisive social commentary on the nature of youth violence and its devastating effects on society. But his approach and execution are far-reaching. Stegman’s gang consists of five misfit outcasts who raid the halls, hustle drugs in the school bathroom and make themselves a general nuisance to their fellow peers. How is it that these mere five students, each with some kind of social dyslexia, manage to invoke so much fear into the faculty and student body that they cannot be stopped? They’re not especially clever, they don’t seem to exhibit any real skill or talent for acquiring the resources to keep them in power. They don’t look any different than any of the other punk students hanging about. And somehow, there isn’t a police force from here to Siberia that can keep these kids in line. Stegman’s gang is your average delinquent collective which reads like a suburban Parent Teacher Association’s newsletter of indicatives for troubled youth. Stegman, a pompadoured hothead in denim and arty new wave t-shirts, is backed by Drugstore, the school’s lanky, resident pusher; Fallon, the no-brains all brawn bodyguard; Barnyard, the oversized neo-Nazi; and Patsy, the token moll of the bunch, who’s pretty much treated as so: inconsequential and near non-existent.

For some reason, Norris is hung up on putting Stegman and his gang in their place. Rather than heed his fellow colleague Corrigan’s warning, the music teacher decides to throw some weight around by trying to infiltrate Stegman’s drug ring. It proves to be a big mistake, as the punks come back at the teacher swinging with full force, target planted firmly on Norris’ back now. It might not be such a problem, if it wasn’t for Norris’ pregnant wife who, later on in the film, finds herself the target of the vicious gang. There would be a reason to feel anxiety and some tension here, if it weren’t for the fact that the gang, supposedly influenced by the then-all prevalent punk rock culture, didn’t look like such clowns. Questionable costume makeover comes courtesy of Patsy, looking like Rainbow Brite from hell; there is enough color and glitter on her to signal a 747 from 50,000 feet up. It seems like no one working on set really had any understanding of punk culture; in a supplementary interview provided on the disc’s extras, actress Lisa Langlois, who plays Patsy, reveals she was targeted by the real punk rock extras (brought in especially for the film) who were looking to beat her up for looking like a punk-poseur.

Perhaps the film’s most pressing question is just exactly why these kids are acting up? What motivates them to behave in such a sadistic manner that they are fully beyond help? Norris’ attempts to emotionally appeal to the distraught and enraged Stegman prove fruitless. So do the half-hearted attempts by the authorities and school board to put an end to the gang’s reign of terror. Filmmaker Lester makes it perfectly clear that these kids are evil, but there’s absolutely no background or exposition on just how these kids got to be this way. We have to take it for granted that these kids are the enemy, which automatically defaults Norris as the hero, no matter what questionable lengths he goes to in order to punish them. Some clues to Stegman’s overall disposition seem to point toward his mother, an irascible harpy ignorant of her son’s crimes (which include torching Norris’ car and organizing a stabbing on classmate Arthur, suspected of narking on the gang).

When it finally comes to blows between Norris and the gang (who, by toward the film’s frenzied climax, rape his wife in her home), the payback stretches to all points of the gruesome extreme. No holds barred, retribution includes immolation, dismemberment, beatings and death. We’re meant to cheer for the teacher as the film sets up that Stegman and his bunch had it coming. But the real villains may just be the apathetic grownups (including the police and school faculty) who just stood by, making one excuse after another when it came to reprimanding the teens. Lester wants us to pretty much do what the surrounding nobodies of the film do: rubberneck at the carnage and drool over spilled blood. But it seems entirely cynical in a way that lacks any true irony. It is to King’s credit that he imbues his pained and struggling character with a measure of understanding and compassion. But in a sea of complete buffoonery, he practically drowns without the lifesaver of a sensible script.

So again, what does Class of 1984 have going for it, if we set aside the narrative snags? Well, filmmaker Lester may not be a master of social invective, but he certainly knows how to inject a frenetic and feral sense of style into his story. Lester sequences the narrative like a train picking up speed until it inevitably veers wildly off the tracks. There’s never a moment when the story lags; we get the necessary information as it pertains to the plot when needed. There’s no peddling around aimlessly for the sake of having actors congregate in order to simply set a tone. Action quickly follows a set up and, as a result, we get a smoothly paced film that never feels like work to watch.

Lester also knows a thing or two about location scenery. This film was shot in Toronto in place of an American inner city. We see the American flag flapping freely all over the place, but there’s no mistaking that this is Toronto. Despite this, the filmmaker manages the feat of turning a comparatively innocuous city into a sleazy, grime-smeared hell ground, whether it’s the local punk club, a city street, the school halls or a dank alleyway. Lester makes exceptional choices in his locations. For Torontonians, this film has the added bonus of having their pre-gentrified city on full display here. Most of the film was shot on location at Central Technical High School on Bathurst Street. It looks exactly the same today as it did in the film of more than 30 years back, with nary a renovation in sight. Elm Street in downtown Toronto gets a good amount of exposure; we get to see glimpses of Yonge Street’s then-popular music-shopping district (including the now defunct A&A Records and Tapes and Sam the Record Man, with its iconic spinning neon discs mounted high above the storefront). We also see the inside of a real punk club on Elm Street, which was the local hangout for much of Toronto’s punk scene back in the early 80’s. On that very same street, the Millwheel (a musical instrument store) and the Balkan Restaurant, both no longer operating today, get a cameo. A trip down Elm Street today reveals that the graffitied alleyway where Stegman and his gang rough up Arthur (played by Michael J. Fox) is now sectioned off, and presumably cleaned up.

Shout! Factory’s transfer is really an all-round decent presentation. The images are crisp and clear. There is no bleeding of colors and there is a nice amount of grain, which gives away the film’s age but doesn’t interfere with the picture. Sound and dialogue come through clearly. The menu screen features an annoying song performed by Alice Cooper, which opens and closes the film. In true punk rock fashion, he’s singing it off-key (though it probably wasn’t intentional).

The best part of the release is the extras. We get an in-depth commentary from the director as well as several interviews from the castmates. An interview with actresses Erin Noble and Lisa Langlois (a Canadian actress who had worked with Claude Chabrol twice, no less, before working on this film) reveals the behind-the scenes activity on set that took place. Langlois makes it known that the shoot was a difficult one, particularly with the boisterous extras who were selected for their “inner city” appearances, some of which were real punks (who probably hung around the crummy dives on Queen Street West, way back when). She also discusses the problems of working on set in Canada versus the mechanisms of American productions. An interview with Perry King about his overall career is very insightful; from Shirley MacLaine and Sylvester Stallone to Andy Warhol, we are treated to a series of amusing anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of an actor working in film.

An interview with director Lester proves interesting but somewhat off-putting. He seems to suggest that this film served as some kind of warning to Americans about the possible fate of the public school system and implies that the tragedies of Columbine were the result of people not heeding the message of his film. Yeah, right.

Class of 1984

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