Class of 1984 (1982)

Class of 1984 first published by Movie Gazette

Fresh out of smalltown Nebraska, idealistic music teacher Andy Norris (Perry King) arrives for his first day at the inner city Abraham Lincoln High School, and almost immediately clashes with Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) –- drug dealer, racketeer, pimp, psychopath, and pupil. The lawsuit-wary headmaster (David Garner) always gives the students the benefit of the doubt, the juvenile officer (Al Waxman) has his hands tied by ineffective laws, and Stegman knows exactly how to play the system to his own advantage. Yet as Norris keeps interrupting the criminal activities of Stegman’’s gang, and –- even more gallingly -– refuses to let Stegman play in the school band, the tension between them mounts, until Norris’’ pregnant wife Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross) is drawn into the conflict, leading Norris to decide it is time that Stegman and his delinquent friends be taught a hard, hard lesson.

From ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ (1939) to ‘To Sir, With Love’ (1967), from ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (1969) to ‘Stand and Deliver’ (1988), from ‘Lean on Me’ (1989) to ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989), and from ‘Dangerous Minds’ (1995) to Être et Avoir (1992), cinema is full of inspirational tales in which dedicated, often unorthodox schoolteachers equip their unruly wards with the valuable life lessons they need to face adulthood. Yet for those of us whose memory of the classroom is less rosy, there is a darker set of paedogogical pics, where the apple left on teacher’s table is an index of temptation, where the playground is the devil’’s alone, where it is the pupils who make (and break) the rules, and where the best that a teacher can do each day is make it home alive. The writing was already on the wall in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (1955), but it was Mark L. Lester’’s po-faced exploitationer ‘Class of 1984’ that really put the flickknife into the highschool flick, using its Orwellian vision of teen anarchy to spawn a whole new subgenre of reactionary teacher’s-revenge films like ‘The Principal’ (1987), ‘The Substitute’ (1996), ‘One Eight Seven’ (1997) and Battle Royale (2000) –- not to mention its own, even more ludicrous sci-fi sequels, ‘Class of 1999’ (1990) and ‘Class of 1999 II: The Substitute’, featuring armed robot teachers who literally eliminate indiscipline from the classroom.

‘Class of 1984’, however, is played totally straight, even as it manipulates its viewers into sympathizing with a teacher who seems no less violent or psychotic than the young punks whom he confronts. The resulting drama makes for an entertainingly uneasy mix, combining a faux-documentary style exposé of what today’’s (or at least tomorrow’’s) kids are getting up to, with a reactionary plot that cheers Norris on as he threatens his pupils, physically assaults them, trashes their cars, and ultimately takes them out one by one like some corridor-monitoring vigilante, while his alcoholic colleague Terry Corrigan (played brilliantly by Roddy McDowall) is driven to conducting a biology lesson at gunpoint (“you simply cannot afford to fail this class”). When Norris defends this clear lapse of sanity on Corrigan’’s part, he is reminded by the principal that “a teacher is required to be responsible” -– but it is a lesson that he has no doubt forgotten as he slashes and burns his way through Lincoln High’’s miscreants in the film’’s climax. Has the man never heard of detention?

‘Class of 1984’ is often credited with accurately foreseeing schools decorated in graffiti and ruled by gang violence, where metal detectors would become a normal part of entering the premises –- but the film proves even more clairvoyant in its depiction of the trends that would dominate the decade to follow, from the punkish clothes and make-up of its youthful antagonists, to the slam-dancing club that they frequent, to the slasher-sensibility of the climax, to the small breakthrough rôle of one Michael (not yet J.) Fox…

© Anton Bitel