November 21, 2013
For a time in the nineteen eighties, the big pop culture threat in the world was punk music. Studded leather jackets and Mohawk hairstyles became symbols of danger and aggression, and antagonists clad in these fashions populated violent movies like Tuff Turf and Savage Streets. Television shows like “Quincy” and “Silver Spoons” even had punk episodes. Filmmakers turned something that they didn’t understand into a menace to society, a trend which was illustrated perfectly in the Canadian horror film Class of 1984.
After a threatening title card explaining the problem of high school violence, Class of 1984 begins with music teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King from The Day After Tomorrow) starting a job at a new school. Except Lincoln High is not a normal high school; it’s the type of place where the students have to pass through metal detectors to get to class, and the hallways are run by drug dealers. After being shown around by the science teacher, Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall from the Planet of the Apes movies), Norris goes to his first class, where he is greeted by mayhem. A group of punks, led by a thug named Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten from “The White Shadow”), are terrorizing the room. Norris gains control and throws the punks out, only to find his car vandalized with graffiti at the end of the day. Later that night, while coming home from dinner, Norris and his wife (The Lucifer Complex's Merrie Lynn Ross) are accosted by the gang outside of their home and drenched with stage blood. Tensions escalate until Norris interrupts a drug deal in the men’s bathroom, putting him squarely in the gang’s crosshairs. When that same drug deal results in the death of one of his students, Norris goes on the offensive. Norris and Stegman end up on a collision course towards a confrontation, and Norris needs to do everything he can to protect himself, his family, and his students.
The depictions of punks and gangs in Class of 1984 are more than a bit exploitative. Like other gang-of-hoodlum films like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the images are surreal and, in retrospect, absurd. Class of 1984 was directed by Mark L. Lester (Firestarter) from a script he wrote with Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night) and John Saxton (Happy Birthday to Me). Anyone who remembers punk in the eighties knows that the portrayals are not accurate, but they do make a good movie. As sensationalized as the film may be, the violence within the movie is very shocking, and the film pulls no punches. The fact that it claims to be “based partially on true events” only makes it that much more disturbing. To an eighties audience taught to think that punk was dangerous, Class of 1984 put forward a terrifying vision.
There is quite a bit of horror movie royalty in the cast of Class of 1984. Perry King played the title character in The Possession of Joel Delaney before doing turns on “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Outer Limits.” As if making his reputation on Planet of the Apes wasn’t enough, Roddy McDowall appeared in both Fright Night movies as well as The Legend of Hell House. Lisa Langlois (Happy Birthday to Me), Stefan Arngrim (Fear No Evil), and Keith Knight (My Bloody Valentine) all play members of Stegman’s gang. Finally (and most impressively), even though he’s not normally thought of as a horror icon, Class of 1984 features the first big-screen performance by a baby-faced Michael J. Fox (The Frighteners, Mars Attacks!). Although they aren’t all household names, there are a lot of familiar faces in Class of 1984.
The special effects in Class of 1984 are few and far between, but they are slasher movie-caliber. The practical effects are all done by Colin Chilvers (Bride of Chucky, X-Men) and Martin Malivoire (Humongous, Urban Legend), and include such fun stuff as a teacher having his hand slashed open by a straight razor, a punk having his arm sawn off on a table saw, and a kid beating himself up by bashing his head against a bathroom sink. The stunt team even gets extra credit for lighting a guy on fire. Class of 1984 isn’t as reliant on blood and gore as most horror films are, so when it is used it’s all the more shocking; most of the violence is implied, so the effects are a great case of less-is-more.
Just like any self-respecting punk movie, the music in Class of 1984 is very important. Most of the music in the film was written by legendary composer Lalo Schifrin (Mission: Impossible, The Amityville Horror). The score ranges from electronic moog-synthesizer pieces to traditional film music, but all of it is well done and fits the film’s atmosphere perfectly. For the scenes that take place inside the gang’s nightclub hangout, popular Canadian new wave/punk rock band "Teenage Head" was used, and they are the epitome of the type of band that would play a joint like that. The opening theme, a Schifrin-penned slow new wave tune called “I Am the Future,” is performed by none other than Alice Cooper. Between Lalo Schifrin’s eerie orchestrations, "Teenage Head"’s sonic rebellion, and Alice Cooper’s vocal cameo, the soundtrack to Class of 1984 is pretty memorable.
By the end of the eighties, the media threat had shifted to the Bloods and Crips gangs of L.A., and images of violent punks in movies died off. Aside from being a cool little horror film, Class of 1984 functions as a time capsule of an era of misplaced paranoia.