“Class of 1984″: School’s been blown to pieces in this campy cult early 80s classic

By on November 21, 2015

We haven’t seen Class of 1984 in many a moon, so it’s going straight into the DVR, but if you happen to be up late tonight or you’ve got yer own DVR or VHS, or whatever, we recommend that you tune into TCM, who happen to be airing Mark L. Lester’s classic 80s campy cult thriller, which we remembered mainly because it has a pretty solid soundtrack, featuring songs by Alice Cooper (“I Am The Future”), punk rockers Fear, Canadian punk band Teenage Head, and an original score by Lalo Schifrin.

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The plot follows the arrival of a new music teacher, Andrew Norris (a bearded Perry King) who shows up to his new assignment at an inner city high school, Lincoln High, where he discovers the students have to pass through a metal detector before they can walk to their classrooms.

Norris pretty quickly finds out that he’s going to have to deal with a gang of punked-out thug students — led by a piano prodigy named Peter Stegman (Tim Van Patten, best known to most at the time from his appearances on TV’s “The White Shadow” high school drama) — who pretty much do what they want, when they want to do it.

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And what is that they want? They want to sell drugs to their fellow students, and they’re not going to led nice Mr. Norris change the way they’ve been conducting their daily business.

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Although seeing kids with Mohawk haircuts, wearing acid-washed blue jeans and studded leather outfits too make the film feel hilariously out-dated, there’s still a lot of scenes here that we remember from the first time we saw the film, like the kid, high on angel dust, who climbs to the top of the school flagpole and then recites the pledge of allegiance before gravity takes over; and the high school biology lab, where it appears that all the animals have been killed (Lester used actual dead animals for the scene and apparently some of the actors could not stand to be in the room with their rotting corpses); and let’s not forget that particularly gory scene in the school’s shop class which involves a table saw — but we don’t wanna spoil it for you by giving up too many details.

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The Ohio-born director Lester — who had moved to Los Angeles with his parents while still in his teens — got the idea for this film after reading that his former high school in North Hills, a community in the San Fernando Valley, in north L.A. county, who were beginning to have to deal with problems associated with gangs of kids who weren’t backing down from authority figures, mainly school administrators, teachers and cops.

Lester had graduated from the same school in 1964, when the students were still forced to adhere to a strict dress code; when he began doing research, he says he discovered that some male students weren’t even wearing shirts in the hallways of the same school, nearly ten years later. Their bad behavior was being expressed in gang fights, but the schools were also starting to have to deal with rampant drug use, and Lester has said he knew when he read about a teacher who had come to class with a gun that he had a movie to make.

Lester saw the film as a prescient warning of what was coming — even adding a warning at the beginning of the film says that if society doesn’t do anything about this issue, this problem will spread all across the country — which sounded pretty alarmist at the time, and he says people laughed at him, but this was still a few years away from what happened at Columbine, for instance, and we’re sure they’re not laughing anymore.

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Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, and considering that his film could be considered an update of the 1950s film Blackboard Jungle, Lester spent a year developing his Class of 1984 screenplay, bringing in screenwriter Tom Holland to flesh out the story and script (the credits also give a co-screenwriting credit to John C.W. Saxton, but not to another original scriptwriter Barry Schneider, but more about that in a sec).

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He cast the film with King, relatively unknown in leading man roles at the time, and a few veteran Hollywood actors, including Roddy McDowall as the meek, pistol packin’ biology teacher Terry Corrigan, pushed to the very edge. He was then able to secure a cheap shooting location (Central Technical High School on Bathurst Street, in Toronto, Ontario), and ended up casting most of the student roles with Canadian actors, including a young Michael J. Fox, who was still being credited as Michael Fox prior to his breakthrough role in Back to the Future. We’re really not too sure about that pageboy haircut of his, though. Egads!

We’ve read that the final film was so violent that the MPAA ratings board threatened the original cut of the film with an X-rating — for a rape scene and table saw-death scene in particular — and they had to be edited in order for it to receive an R-rating, but by that time Schneider — who hated the film that he’d helped write — had his name taken off the credits as one of the screenwriters of the final film.

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Lester had started his career off with a bang when his debut Twilight of the Mayas (1971) took the top honors at the Venice Film Festival. He then went on to helm a bunch of mostly-forgettable drive-in movie fizzlers like Steel Arena (1973), Truck Stop Women (1974), Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) and Roller Boogie (1979), which turned out to be his breakout film, and which we told you about here.

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At the time, he just a few years away from his biggest box-office successes of the 1980s, which would come later with the Stephen King-penned supernatural thriller Firestarter (1984) starring Drew Barrymore, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger mega-hit Commando (1985), which grossed over $120 million, but Lester has said that he screened his Class of 1984 at all of the studios, and everyone passed — it was deemed simply too controversial, even by his own studio, Columbia Pictures, where he had a production deal at the time.

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Then the film became a big hit at Cannes Film Festival, and Roger Ebert wrote about it in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 31, 1982, saying that Class of 1984 boasted “a strong story,” and was “well-acted, confidently directed, exciting, moving and controversial.”

Lester figured the studios would give it another look, with good advance praise and being a hit at Cannes, but American audiences were just not ready for the film, at least that’s what he was told. It wasn’t “mainstream” enough, apparently.

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Frank Mancuso of Paramount Pictures told Lester his company would distribute the film if he could do a test screening, in his neighborhood in New Jersey, along with teenage sex romp Porky’s, which was becoming a breakout film at the time. It may have been Mancuso or the owner of the theater who then came up with the idea for an advertisement that said all 12-year old boys were going to be admitted free to the screening.

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Only, it turned out that 12-year old boys weren’t big fans of the movie either, and they let Mancuso know and Lester says they even threw things at him in the movie theater lobby.

Lester has said that Warner Brothers were the next company interested in picking up the film if he could help them secure distribution, so he then brought the film to United Artists’s president Sal Hasinine, who was able to see it screened at his home on Long Island. He made a deal to buy the film that same night, yanking it away from Warners and giving Lester a half-million dollar advance.

United Artists then ended up pulling the movie they had screening that summer in United Artists-owned theaters across the country; they had a movie that wasn’t doing very well and so UA put Class of 1984 up on the screens instead of the Dolly Parton-starring Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which just happened, as it turned out, to be a Warner Brothers film.

Somewhat surprisingly, when Class of 1984 opened on August 20, 1982, it did very well, a boffo box-office number one hit that summer in New York theaters on its way to becoming the #1 U.S. box-office draw in ’82, and the top-grossing film in many major markets around the world.

The film did much better in theaters than 1979’s Rock ‘N’ Roll High School and Over The Edge had both done, just a few years earlier, and we’ll have to watch the film later to see how if Class of 1984 is as memorable as we remember it was. We know we’re not going to forget the haircuts any time soon.

Class of 1984 airs tonight — Saturday night, November 21st– or tomorrow, early Sunday morning, Nov. 22 — at 11:15pm PST/2:15am EST, but be sure to check those local listings, as they say.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • RCIAG

    And now Tim Van Patten is an Emmy award winning director. Whodathunk?