Juvenile delinquents on film had changed a lot by the time of this Mark Lester release when compared to 1955’s Richard Brooks smash hit Blackboard Jungle which pitted Glenn Ford as the teach versus Vic Morrow playing the chief trouble maker with a switchblade knife.
For this 80’s updating, we’re going to find Perry King as the teacher trying to make a difference in the lives of his high school music students. I’m sure you’ll be quick to notice the pudgy Michal J. Fox among his charges. Alarm bells should be sounding when King arrives for his first day on the job when he meets fellow faculty member Roddy McDowall in the parking lot packing a gun in his suitcase. Turns out this school has the distinct flavor of a prison film where there are guards on patrol, metal detectors at the doors, shakedowns and drugs being freely dealt in the hallways.
King is going to run afoul of the number one delinquent and his cohorts on opening day. Starring here as the student from hell is Timothy Van Patten. Unlike his gang members who look to be members of a punk rock band, Patten looks as if he could be a model for any number of teen magazines. It won’t take long for King to realize that below the surface of the good looks is a psychotic demon capable of just about any kind of crime. Sadly, Patten could be the star player in the orchestra that King is putting together. The kid is a virtuoso on the piano keys.
While King is listening to the jaded, elderly teacher in Roddy about not getting through to the kids anymore, Patten is seen to be a Scarface in the making. He’s dealing drugs, has women working the halls as hookers and lays a beating on any gang of thugs that try dealing on his turf. An All-American momma’s boy. Which brings us to the fun fact that this may be painting a pretty nasty picture of a U.S. high school when in fact it’s a made in Canada film. Canadian actors like Fox and long time CBC favorite Al Waxman populate the film. Not to mention that a keen eye can spot the now defunct Sam The Record Man store in the backdrop of a few downtown scenes filmed in the heart of Toronto. Then there’s the Zanzibar hotel. (Honestly, I’ve never set foot in the place but have passed by it dozens of times)
Things are only going to escalate when the violence becomes surreal to the point of attempting to murder students who have witnessed too much of Patten’s activities. When King and Roddy become to involved in trying to stop the bloodshed, they become marked men. From here on in to the finish line, the “class of 1984” becomes one violent vigilante ride that one can term as a first rate example of 80’s exploitation filmmaking. I just wish there wasn’t a scene far too reminiscent of the Death Wish 2 rape scene included in the proceedings.
This is a film that can really draw anger out from the viewer. Van Patten and his gang are over the top when it comes to nefarious deeds. They may be minors in the film who are protected by laws that even police detective Al Waxman can’t shake but they deserve the gruesome deaths that await them when the teacher turns the tables on them. Strong statement? Maybe but it’s just a movie right?
I actually saw this title in theaters back in the day and though I can’t recall, I would imagine the participation of Roddy McDowall had something to do with it. Once again Roddy is a pro delivering a likable yet ultimately sad performance of the beaten teacher. He’s all but given up and he’ll be sure to elicit plenty of sympathy from those watching the film. When he gets his chance for a bit of payback, you’ll admire his new teaching tactics.
Perry King is well suited to his role of a high school teacher taking on more than he bargained for in this crime infested high school that if they ever existed to this degree during the season of 1984, I’m glad I live in my little corner of Canada where these things just didn’t exist the way they are portrayed here by the vicious Van Patten who is far to believable in his role as the kid you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance.
With stops for Commando and Firestarter among others, director Mark L. Lester would also film the Class of 1999 where robotic teachers are called in to handle the unruly. Tom Holland served as the writer of this 1984 semester and it’s of note that he’d also be the credited writer on Fright Night which features one of Roddy McDowall’s most memorable roles as Peter Vincent, Vampire Hunter.
While Glenn Ford had Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock blaring out over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, Class of 1984 has hired on Alice Cooper to deliver the opening melody over the credits to start us on our schooling on the how to’s of delinquency.
Not for everyone’s taste I’m sure, but sure to elicit some conversation should you see it with a group. If you happen to pick up the Scream Factory blu ray release, be sure to listen in on the 48 minute interview with Perry King. Thoroughly enjoyable and King brings nothing but fun and enthusiasm to the conversation as he recalls his career looking back to films like Joel Delaney, Lords of Flatbush and many others. Don’t pass this up.
For another fun viewpoint on the violence within, click here to visit the Wolfmans Cult Film Club.