Class of 1984 (US - DVD)
Gabe Powers is the future...and you can't stop this review of the B-movie classic...
Once upon a time, school violence was still something that shocked people. These days, High School murder sprees are a fact of life, one that the mainstream media eats up, spits out, and asks for more of. Our fictional forecasting of this phenomenon takes place in an unnamed American city, and a make-believe school called Lincoln High.
Perry King stars as Andrew Norris, a new teacher at Lincoln, who has taken over the music department when his predecessor met a suspicious end. After seeing a gun in another teacher's briefcase and witnessing thugs sneaking straight razors past entrance medal detectors, Andrew realizes that Lincoln is not going to be an easy gig. In his first period he meets the villainous Peter Stegman and his motley crew, the students that rule the school with an iron fist. Norris takes it upon himself to help these troubled students, but soon he learns a lesson in the terrifying capabilities of youth, and finds himself trapped in a life or death struggle.
To put my personal review of Class of 1984 in perspective, perhaps a little personal history is required. I was a member of the class of 1998, and graduated one year before the watershed moment in modern school violence history, the Columbine High tragedy. That event changed the way the general public viewed the subject of youth violence, and was the culmination of a dirty little secret that had been stewing for years.
During my sophomore year of High School, in 1996, there was a full-scale riot (riot being the local media's preferred buzzword, it was more of a giant fist fight involving more than half the student body). This massive act of adolescent violence called in every on duty cop in the city. Fortunately only one kid (that I know of) ended up in intensive care. My own father has also spent the last decade or so teaching high-risk Middle School kids (ages eleven to about fourteen, for those of you outside of the States). I've heard plenty of horror stories around the kitchen table.
So here I have established that I am jaded to the now quaint idea of school violence. On top of this, I am very weary of '80s era ‘cult’ films. I admit that as I've aged, I've lost that bit of magic within that allows me to tolerate such ‘classics’ as Willow, Goonies, just about anything featuring the ‘Brat Pack’, and the Back to the Future Trilogy. I am especially weary of films labelled ‘controversial’ from the era. I've seen far too many bargain basement bore fests to get excited by this often on-the-box claim.
Despite these factors, and the fact that I was a total punk rocker in my youth (we can spot a fake punker from a mile away), I was, in the end won over by Class of 1984. The film starts off slowly, fulfilling every era stereotype within the first twenty minutes: a dated credit song, dated clothing, unnatural (and dated) dialogue, and the kind of campy sense of humour that can grate my brain like a soft block of sharp cheddar. If I wanted to watch Welcome Back, Kotter reruns I'd turn on the TV, right? Things were not looking good.
But as it progressed, the film began to take itself more and more seriously, and in turn, I did too. Characters that were originally entirely unthreatening and unsympathetic become more realistic. With the very specific exception of Merrie Lynn Ross (seriously, what's going on with that woman's mouth?), who plays Norris' wife, the performances are surprisingly natural, and believable. Lead punk Stegman is about as real a young villain as any director could want, and it's kind of a shame he went nowhere as an actor (though he did enjoy a pretty lucrative directing career with HBO).
The real star of this show isn't any of the leads, but good ol', solid as a rock standby Roddy McDowall. Proving that he may indeed be the most underrated character actor in film history, McDowall blew me away by simultaneously being the funniest, most charming, most tragic, and most poignant character on screen. He also has the show-stealing scene, where he very literally holds his biology students at gunpoint and forces them to learn. It is these tiny roles, in forgotten films such as this that make up an outstanding, and often overlooked career.
I spent most of the film waiting for this so-called ‘shocking violence’, assuming that, once again, I'd been had. Considering the relatively tame nature of the film's first half, who could blame my scepticism, but I was most pleased (I guess I'm not sure pleased is the right word here) to find myself appropriately titillated and surprised to what depth the film was willing to sink. While not exactly a gore-fest, Class of 1984 does have a prominent mean streak, especially in its final act, when all bets are off.
At its base, this is just another B-grade exploitation flick, that fulfils that fascist wet dream, our Death Wish-esque need for violent retribution. We all have it. In a real world scenario, Mr. Norris makes some absolutely ridiculous decisions, and isn't nearly the put upon hero we want him to be. This fact holds true to most of these lizard brained revenge thrillers, the hero can often be easily seen as the antagonist, because this situation was not nearly as volatile until he entered the fray. Fortunately, this isn't the real world, it's entertainment.
The film earns a few demerits for general sloppiness, mostly because it doesn't pursue some of its plots most interesting turns. Most of these underdeveloped, but intriguing points pertain to the lead thug Stegman. When he shows interest in what Norris has to offer, and even proves that he is a masterful musician, Norris dismisses him immediately. Was this the last straw? Why did Norris think this was a good idea? We are given a brief glimpse into Stegman's home life, which reveals him as a spoiled rich brat with his single mother under his thumb, a social commentary that may have made the film more enjoyable beyond its empty entertainment core. Instead of devoting screen time to Norris' boring home life, I'd have preferred to get to know a little more about Stegman.
Anchor Bay Entertainment serves up another as nice as possible transfer. Colours are bright without bleeding or blooming. There are no obvious compression or artefacting issues. There is quite a bit of film grain, and detail levels occasionally blur during action, but this is age related nit picking. I never got around to renting the film back in the days of VHS, so it appears that I've been fortunate enough to experience the film at its best since its original theatrical release.
Class of 1984 has been remixed into a ‘state of the art’ Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The directional effects are surprisingly effective, considering the film's age, and the general lack of workable material. Basically the surround channels are lively with ambient, school related noise at all times, including the sounds of kids chatting, sneakers squeaking, papers shuffling, and pencils writing. The whole mix, while effective, does have a artificial feel to it, and has very obviously been created in an Anchor Bay lab. The centre channel dialogue is a bit too quiet, which is a problem I've had with other Anchor Bay releases in the past.
By the time I got to the disc's special features, I had a pretty strong conception of what the people who put the film together were like. I assumed that director Mark L. Lester would be an easygoing fella, kind of self-deprecating when asked about his work. I mean how seriously could the guy who's main claim to fame was the Arnold staring Commando, quite possibly the silliest action film on the actor's resume, maybe even of the decade? Turns out I was wrong.
In the DVD's featurette, ‘Blood and Blackboards’, Lester presents himself as an overconfident, pretentious, auteur, only too eager to remark on his film's groundbreaking genius. I started to think that maybe Class of 1984 was an accidental success, a film that was crafted through luck and circumstance, not a talented director or producer. Lester simultaneously states influences and claims to be the originator of several film events. I'd say he'd forgotten other, earlier literary and film classics pertaining to the violence of misspent youth, like A Clockwork Orange, or Blackboard Jungle, but he cites their influence. It seems that the only references he forgot were Suspiria (the finale apes the beginning of Argento's masterpiece), and the original bad boy tale, Lord of the Flies.
This odd mix of self-congratulatory waffle and wilful admittance of homage is so contradictory that one can't help but fall in love with Lester's odd sense of self worth. He seems to actually think his film was made as a warning to America about future violence. I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, Mark, your film is exploitation trash, good exploitation trash, but exploitation trash nonetheless. Having the drugged out good kid take down the American flag after falling from the flagpole isn't nearly as deep as you may think, in fact, it's the kind of over the top metaphorical imagery that could only be found in this kind of B-grade fluff. Lester is also sure to remark on his extensive research. I am admittedly impressed with his use of actual events, collected from real life teachers and police, in his unfocused script.
The audio commentary is really more of the same, with Lester being actively prompted to state basically the same things he'd stated in the mini-doc, only over a much longer period of time. Fellow site reviewer, Rebecca Taylor, checked out the Aussie release earlier, and complained about the commentary's lack of cast information. Assuming this is the same commentary, Anchor Bay USA must have heard her cries when they made the featurette, which again, is really a more concise and informative version of the commentary. The commentary is also, thankfully, producer/actress Merrie Lynn Ross free. Ross is the only person featured on the doc that holds the little film in higher regard than Lester.
Finishing off the extras are the usual assortments of trailers, TV spots, art galleries, and bios. The original trailer and TV spots are great examples of grimy, exploitation advertising, but give away way too much of the film's ugliness. I'm happy I didn't precede my viewing of the film with them, because they would've skewed my expectations unfavourably. The poster and still gallery is not the most inclusive I've ever seen, but the poster art featuring Roddy McDowall holding his class at gunpoint is the kind of thing that just makes my day. Lester's bio is the usual Anchor Bay quick, but not dirty job. I'll always be impressed with the studio's writers' skill at editing a life story into such a brief, yet inclusive synopsis.
Did I forget to mention that Class of 1984 is also Michael J. Fox's first feature film? Well it is. Fox is young and green, but surprisingly good, but not really a great reason to take in the flick. I am more than happy with the final film, despite its narrative sloppiness and insistence on not pursuing some of its most interesting ideas and subplots. As a work of art, the film fails admirably, as a work of sleazy fun, it kicks bloody ass.
For a more educated review, please see Rebecca Taylor's review, linked at the bottom of the page. I'm not as knowledgeable in the history of '80s era film as she is, and she has some interesting comments I considered plagiarizing. In the interest of my ‘integrity’ as a writer, please just read her review for yourself instead.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 21st February 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Surround 2.0, Dolby Surround 5.1
Extras: Theatrical Trailer,TV Spots, Poster And Still Gallery, "Blood And Blackboards",Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Mark L. Lester and DVD Producer Perry Martin, Mark L. Lester Bio,Screenplay (DVD-ROM)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mark L. Lester
Cast: Perry King, Timothy Van Patten, Roddy McDowall, Michael J. Fox, Stefan Arngrim
Length: 0 minutes
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