A new teacher arrives at an out-of-control school that is overrun with gangs, drugs and violence. It’s punks vs. authority in a psychotic fight to the death!
Duane: Ah, Class of 1984. How many times have I enjoyed you over the years? Possibly dozens, and it never gets old. Mark Lester’s (Commando, Class of 1999) classic pseudo-dystopian commentary on the youth of the time is just as relevant today as it was back then, possibly even more so.
Equal parts exploitation, drama and I’ll even go so far as to say horror, Class of 1984 is an apt illustration of society’s fear of youth during the heyday of the punk movement. Not only does the film have a lot to say, it also happens to be entertaining as fuck, throwing plenty of violence, sex, and all that good stuff right in the viewer’s face. There’s not a single goddamn frame of this movie that doesn’t merit careful observation on a multitude of levels.
Jocelyn: Agreed. This is simply a classic. It’s the age-old, social-commentary scare-film that’s been done to death but this time they got it right by really pushing the envelope and making it seedy as shit. It was originally rated X, they had to cut a substantial chunk of violence out of the last 1/3 of the movie to get that R rating. If I understood Lester correctly in the DVD commentary there are actually foreign cuts with footage we’ve never seen. (and the treasure hunt begins…)
The amazing thing about this film is that even though it’s 100% exploitation to the max, it’s very well-acted and the characters are never really one dimensional. It’s so easy to gank the “punk” (I think we can all agree that they’re probably a bit more new-wave than punk, but I digress) ideology and aesthetic and throw it in a blender to make it suit your needs but you can tell that they actually tried to give it some authenticity. My biggest complaint: If you have FEAR on your fucking soundtrack, don’t give Alice Cooper the title song. I love (old) Cooper but “I am the Future” (despite it being a line uttered by Stegman) is not a worthy theme to this film. It should have been “Let’s Have a War” by FEAR. But enough nit-picking.
D: You’re dead right about Let’s Have a War – that would have been the perfect title song. The Alice Cooper inclusion has always baffled me; the lyrics seem to fit, but musically that was just a horrible idea. That’s possibly the only negative thing I can say about this film. Even the fact that it’s Canadian isn’t an issue because it’s so well put together and never feels cheap or tainted in that way. The X-rating potential makes sense, there’s a lot of graphic imagery later on in the film as everything amps up – that table saw scene is still kind of shocking to this day (largely due to the fact that it‘s so unexpected. Brilliant.).
There are a ton of very talented people acting in this and as you mentioned, it shows. Timothy Van Patten is fucking stellar as Stegman, the leader of the gang of shitheads running the school. Roddy McDowell (Fright Night, the original Planet of the Apes trilogy) as the shell-shocked science teacher is amazing as always, Keith Knight (who sadly passed away in 2007) (Meatballs, My Bloody Valentine) and Lisa Langlois (The Nest, Happy Birthday to Me) are a treat to watch as Barnyard and Patsy respectively, Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future trilogy, Teen Wolf) as Arthur the goody-goody band kid; the list goes on and on. Timothy Van Patten even composed and performed that piano piece he plays in band class “Stegman’s Concerto”. Amazing.
J: Timothy Van Patten is really the glue that kinda holds the whole thing together; even with his perfectly coifed pseudo-punk aesthetic it’s his seething intensity that sells it. I’ve always appreciated that they didn’t try to take some kind of bullshit, classist moral high ground by making them poor inner city kids. These are middle class white kids who are intelligent, resourceful and sinister. The air is thick with a selfish hopelessness that so accurately sums up the era. That’s what makes this such a compelling film that is worthy of repeat viewings. Not only is it depressing, thought provoking and exploitive but it somehow manages to be fun and not take itself too seriously – i.e. the Godfather-esque scene in the back of the punk club. They control the local drug distribution, pimp out junkie whores and there’s always a line of kids waiting to hook up with their gang, aching to get their teenage hands dirty. It’s so ridiculously overt that it works. Sidenote: I read that it was a legit fix that “Drugstore” shot in that scene, and that’s according to Stefan Arngrim himself.
You’re right, this is one of the few movies I’ve seen in all my years that was filmed in Canada yet miraculously doesn’t have the stink of the great white north all over it. They did a fabulous job scouting with the majority of the film being shot on location; the only scenes that were staged are the auto-shop and wood-shop scenes because the school that they used didn’t have them. I loved the location of the first gang-fight that’s under two overpasses; it has a really nice gritty look to it and was shot very well. It definitely looks more scuzzy Detroit than Toronto, Ontario.
D: That’s another aspect of the film that is done exceedingly well – the gang fights. That first gang fight you mentioned was almost reminiscent of The Warriors at least from an aesthetic standpoint (minus the gangs in silly costumes) and even touches on some racist undertones; Barnyard even sports a swastika t-shirt in some scenes which has always made me wonder if it’s solely for shock value or if this group of kids support that line of thinking. The black kid who they catch selling drugs at the school and end up beating the fuck out of being another instance. So many films from this era and subgenre lack any real substance beyond sensationalistic visuals; Class of 1984 is as deep and brooding as it is entertaining.
I also love how the film starts out kind of innocuous, then slowly builds until it’s an all-out war between these teen barbarians and the straight-laced teacher who’s been pushed way too far (the scene where they gang rape his wife may not be graphic, but it’s drawn out and is very brutal/disturbing) and is forced to take matters into his own hands. Even the police aren’t interested in helping the guy out; he’s on his own and it ultimately turns into a struggle of good vs. evil while simultaneously making a statement about how the system is broken. Even the school has a state of the art camera system, an omnipresent unblinking eye watching the heinous crimes being committed within the school, but to what end? It’s certainly not being used to fix the situation. This could be seen as a statement on people’s tendency to idly stand by and do nothing as individuals are being victimized and abused while the audience is essentially a group of disengaged consumer automatons; a direct result of The “Me” Generation.
J: Well, there are some racist undertones but I don’t think it’s anything more than simply the era we lived in; what I gleaned more than anything from Lester’s commentary was that he was really going for a A Clockwork Orange meets 80s neo-Nazis but in a new-wave/punk vein. Honestly, it’s just a thorough mish-mash of all of his favorite films to hear him tell it. Barnyard’s shirt actually has a reversed swastika on it, so you could tear that apart any way you like. I did also take note of several other not-quite-swastikas in the film, so I don’t think it’s so much a racial/Neo-Nazi thing as it’s intended to be militaristic, as is evident by the costuming. Several times you can see Stegman wearing everything from fashioned epaulettes to military stripes to Wehrmacht eagles. It makes sense that as movie makers (and the teens portrayed) they would borrow from something that already has so much negativity and power.
As far as the police go, I never thought they weren’t interested in helping as much as they continually had tied hands by not having enough evidence to prove wrong-doing. They went out of their way to hammer home the “no one saw anything” excuse through the whole movie; the drugs in the bathroom, the scene where Stegman beats the fuck out of himself, Michael J. Fox being shanked, the last screen cap for Christ’s sake: “Andy Norris could not be prosecuted because the police couldn’t find anyone who actually saw it happen” if anything it was maddening and could be perceived as paving the way for where we are now; an Orwellian 1984 Big Brother state filled with cameras in every pocket and drones overhead. And you’re right, Lester was smart building up to the final act – the violence escalates slowly getting progressively more savage and bloodthirsty. That’s why the saw and gang rape scenes work as well as they do, you’re just not expecting that level of violence, especially involving kids.
Wow. We’re really going off on this movie! I can’t remember the last time we wrote a review this long. I’ll say one more thing and then wrap it up – we’ve not mentioned Patsy’s character much and I have to say, speaking as a woman, I appreciated the fact that even though she wasn’t exactly integral to fights she was still her own brand of fucked-up shit-stirrer and she (Lisa Langlois) made her mark on that movie from what I can’t imagine was a whole hell of a lot on the page. I loved that she was simultaneously cutesy and aggressive; she very much got off on the violence and encouraged it at every turn. There’s something markedly disturbing about a woman watching another woman being gang-raped and reveling in it. And let’s not forget that she was unabashedly attracted to the ladies as well – Bravo! (Although, it was disappointing to me when I found out that she was just an actor who hated her clothes and was scared of the other “punks” in the movie.)
D: It’s true, typically one would have seen all manner of inversions to Nazi regalia, usually in opposition to an idea; which is why I always found it kind of confusing as to what these kids really stood for. I definitely didn’t get any sort of neo-Nazi vibe off of them, I saw it as a bunch of kids rebelling and trying to be shocking and controversial. At any rate it all looks good on this sordid group of malcontents; no matter what they believed in, they were just plain bad news.
I agree with your comments on Patsy’s character especially her watching the gang rape; that part always made my stomach knot up. She was very well portrayed – I find myself flipping between finding her alluring and wanting to drive my fist through her face. Her role at the end of the film where she’s luring Norris through the darkened halls of the school was particularly aggravating as she kept reappearing to taunt him then vanish. I loved how she used her gender to her advantage; it added a whole different aspect to the gang’s dynamic. Part of the fun of course is seeing how these wretched kids get their come-uppance; so again, kudos to everyone involved.
J/D: Class of 1984 truly defies classification. But one thing is for certain – it is an intensely entertaining bit of genre cinema. Kick back, relax and enjoy. This is absolutely essential ownage.
“Life…..is pain. Pain……is everything.“
Official COSDS Nunspank Rating:
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Jocelyn lives on 35 acres of woodland in an undisclosed Appalachian location. When not boozing it up or fighting the power she's tending her organic garden or collecting punk/soundtrack albums. Her best friends walk on 4 legs. She does not own a cell phone.