Some movies of the exploitation variety make you say “Well, that escalated quickly.” One of those is Mark Lester’s 1982 film Class of 1984, a gritty look at the state of urban schools and the increased level of violence. It feels a bit like a propaganda film at times about the dangers of uncontrollable youth, but it’s actually a lot more sinister than that, in a good way I’d say. It starts out as just menacing, gets into a weird and troubling cat-and-mouse game, and finally ends up as an all-out rampage where a teacher has to effectively murder students or risk being murdered himself. And they’re “just kids,” so we have to give them the benefit of the doubt, right? I mean, right?!
Any time a movie feels like “a cautionary tale,” I generally check out, because it’s usually full of Reefer Madness-esque paranoia, or like those films they show you in drivers ed where kids are monkeying around while behind the wheel and they end up splattered all over the pavement. “This could be YOU!” they dogmatically proclaim. But Class of 1984 is a little bit different. It certainly has that kind of fear of the disaffected youth, or fear of what they could do if left unchecked, but it’s also a pretty great thriller where a seemingly normal and together man is pushed to the edge, and over it. And, jeepers, does it ever go over it. The film’s final act is an explosion of quite gruesome violence and brutality, all while a high school band is playing classical music in the auditorium.
The film stars Perry King as Andrew Norris, a high school music teacher who moves with his young, pretty, pregnant wife from the suburbs to the City to start work at a new school, replacing another music teacher who left under strange circumstances. It’s definitely a tougher school than he’s used to, but he’s positively aghast to see a metal detector and several security officers at the entrance. A veteran teacher named Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) tells him it’s no use fighting it, kids these days are out of control. He’s lucky to get through to any of them, very jaded he is. Norris’ new band class has several kids in it, most of them eager to learn and play (including a very, very young Michael J. Fox), but one of the students, Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) is a terror, a leader of a gang of hoodlums, and he brings all of them into class with him, even though they’re not enrolled.
Norris attempts to get through to Stegman, whose outside-of-school practices include drug dealing and something akin to running prostitution. Turns out Stegman’s a fantastic piano player, but Norris won’t let him play if he’s going to act the way he is, and he simply won’t stop. Drugs that Stegman sold in school caused a student to climb up the flagpole and jump to his death. They also become convinced Fox’s character has ratted them out, so they hire another punk to stab him during a cafeteria brawl. He doesn’t die, though. Norris seems to be the only one who realizes Stegman’s doing anything, or is the only one who wants to do something about it. The principal can’t do anything until he has evidence, and he’ll always give the student the benefit of the doubt, and the cops are pretty much in the same boat, though without the benefit of the doubt. This leads to Stegman always having the upper hand; he even beats himself up and blames Norris for it, a-la Fight Club many years later.
McDowall’s character has a very interesting arc in the film. At first he doesn’t want to get involved at all, and urges Norris to do the same, even if the gang injures other students or worse. But Norris then finds out that the elder teacher used to be one of the best and most emotionally invested teachers in the district. He’s just become beaten down by the system so much. He longs to reach these kids, and kiiiiiiind of goes off the deep end. He brings a gun into his class and threatens the gang as he teaches. Eventually, he DOES make them learn, even under duress, but he’s, obviously, stopped by Norris and arrested. Later, he gets drunk and drives around town, finds the gang, and attempts to run them over, crashing and killing himself in the process.
Eventually, things get WAY insane. The gang blows up Norris’ car, for example, and he takes Stegman’s beloved old Caddy and crashes it mercilessly and walks away. After Norris manages to start to swing the pendulum back in his own favor, the night of the band’s concert, the gang breaks into Norris’ home and they gang rape his PREGNANT wife. The female of the gang takes a photo of the assault and brings it to Norris who’s just about to start the concert. He goes running into the school, without telling anyone, trying to find his wife. The gang beats him up, but he then starts a trail of violence, taking out each gang member in turn, using nasty implements from the shop class, including a blow torch, table saw (the grimmest), and car parts. This leads him to the roof where he and Stegman have a final showdown, that ends very bombastically.
Despite the clear fear-mongering about how dangerous schools are these days (and, by the way, they weren’t that far off; lots of schools have metal detectors and security guards and all kinds of precautionary measures like that. The only difference now is if a kid were acting up that much, they’d just kick him out of school), Class of 1984 actually manages to be a pretty harrowing and engaging action-thriller. Lester does a good job of building the tension over time and creating a world where nothing anyone does seems to matter without proof, so that when things really go overboard, we’re already in a place where it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, relatively speaking. This was only set two years later than it was made (1984 being a good, totalitarian year), but it feels like it’s very close to the end of the world. A couple of years later, Lester would make a film called Class of 1999 which was a sci-fi thriller involving evil robotic teachers, but I don’t think it could touch this movie in terms of being apocalyptic.