In Class Of 1984, Perry King plays Mr. Norris, a music teacher not unlike architect Paul Kersey in Death Wish. Both are idealistic in their non-violent principles to the point of heartbreaking blindness. Both are men of peace unknowingly entering worlds of terror that severely test their personal philosophies. Both are vulnerable to retribution because of the women they love. And both reach their breaking points over the same thing.
The movie opens with Mr. Norris arriving at Abraham Lincoln High School on his first day. Despite being the originator of Kurt Angle’s 3 I’s (“Industry, Intelligence, Integrity”), it is a troubled institution in serious decline. The biology teacher (Roddy McDowell) carries a gun in his briefcase. Students enter through a metal detector. The place is littered with vulgar graffiti. And no one seems to know what to do about Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) and his terrifying group of Nazi terrorists. (Yes, the leader of a small group of unrepentant white supremacists is Jewish, a curious contradiction never ever addressed.) Countless suspensions have only emboldened their criminal activities.
Stegman rules by fear and profits from depravity. He is one of the most remorseless villains I’ve ever seen. (Even the rapists in Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left regretted murdering those girls.) No one scares him and no one threatens him without consequence. He is so arrogantly brazen that even after impressing Mr. Norris with his surprisingly good piano playing (Van Patten wrote and performed his own song), like the current President of the United States, he can’t accept being rejected for exhibiting such a snotty, rude attitude. Mr. Norris, it turns out, is no pushover. For the first time in his life, Stegman starts feeling insecure about his status. He may no longer be untouchable.
Class Of 1984 doesn’t shy away from brutal violence as it repeatedly demonstrates just how menacing Stegman’s crew truly is. Very briefly we meet a rival gang of black students who make the mistake of selling drugs at Lincoln High. This means profits are down considerably for the white supremacists who also exploit teenage sex workers. Stegman’s terrorists beat up one of their dealers in the school washroom and then later, they whollop the entire gang with weapons in an outdoor rumble near a bridge. As a result, we never see these black kids again.
Give this movie credit. It gets this point right. Right wing fascism is the most dangerous phenomenon.
As Mr. Norris prepares his students for an important concert, Stegman oversees a bathroom drug deal that goes horribly wrong. A bad batch of angel dust leads to a dramatic suicide. Michael J. Fox (before he had to add the J to his name) plays the smart-ass yet sympathetic trumpet player who tries to warn his doomed friend about his misguided plan. Even though Mr. Norris confronts the gang shortly after the deal goes down, he hopes Fox will still come forward since he saw everything. Fox knows better. Just to make sure, Stegman and company deliver a compelling reason for him to stay quiet.
When a paranoid Stegman wrongly thinks that Fox is exposing him to a cop (Al Waxman in a fine supporting performance), a new recruit is ordered to stab him. The gang cleverly instigate a cafeteria brawl to avoid the possibility of eyewitnesses. But Fox eventually gives up the name from his hospital bed to his increasingly concerned teacher.
Mr. Norris’ initially peaceful resistance to Stegman’s sense of entitlement begins a war that ultimately escalates exactly the way you expect it to. First, stage blood is squirted into his face just steps from his house. A childish warning. Then, his car gets blown up. A more ominous message. In a scene that somewhat echoes a similar moment in Dirty Harry, after mocking his infuriated teacher’s normally zen nature, Stegman purposefully bashes his own head a number of times in the bathroom and wipes his blood on his enemy’s hand hoping the incoming school security guard will connect the dots. (Norris does get charged with assault.) Still stubbornly thinking you can reason with a teenage fascist enabled by a delusional, passive single mom, it’s only after being directly threatened by this monster that Norris starts to finally crack. Stegman’s beautiful red convertible gets quite a thrashing in his apartment building parking lot. This time, Norris is the untouchable one.
Norris’ friend, the shell-shocked biology teacher, who literally drinks on the job because he can’t cope with having unresponsive students, undergoes a similar breakdown much sooner than Norris. When Stegman’s Nazis kill all his rabbits and rats, he finally has a reason to pull out that gun in class. Later, he attempts to run them all over outside their club hangout where Teenage Head performs.
When we find out early on that Norris has a pregnant wife (executive producer Merrie Lynn Ross), it’s only a matter of time before she’s assaulted. (Her refusal to go to her mother’s house immediately is predictable but tragic nonetheless.) It is easily the most disturbing scene in the film. But without its inclusion, the final act wouldn’t work.
After being lured into a violent trap just as he’s about to begin conducting his students during that important school concert, Norris finally realizes you can’t reason with a Nazi. You have to kill them all.
Adolf Hitler famously said that if Germans had quashed his racist movement before it ever rose to power, he wouldn’t have succeeded in orchestrating one of the worst genocides in human history. Class Of 1984 feels the same way about its own teenage Nazis. It fully understands the insidious nature of their violent white supremacy. They don’t respond well to hippie talk. Despite suspension after suspension handed down by an otherwise hapless principal who looks like Mr. Roper and a police officer who can only do so much within the law (these juvenile delinquents can’t serve life sentences despite their long rap sheets), the only real deterrent is brutal force, especially since they refuse to end their relentless bullying.
Mr. Norris is left with no alternative but to singlehandedly defend himself, his wife and his unborn child as he lays deadly, spontaneous traps of his own for these despicable heels who deserve everything they get. It’s a testament to how well crafted this film is that I loudly cheered for him every step of the way. He’s fully justified in his actions.
Class Of 1984 is a gruesome B-movie with some surprising intelligence and skill despite its predictable plot and lousy theme song. (Maybe Alice Cooper should’ve written his own cut instead of singing someone else’s weak number.) Decades after its release, its seemingly overwrought warning about the rise of school violence in America has become sadly prescient. Imagine how even scarier Stegman and his band of bullies would’ve been if they had access to guns like the Columbine killers.
The terrific Timothy Van Patten is so obnoxiously deceptive and manipulative, so disgustingly sexist and hateful, every time you see his smug expression you want to punch him. You eagerly look forward to seeing his inevitably turbulent fall. Thanks to his musical talent and unspoken Jewish heritage, Stegman ends up being a much more interesting villain than you expect. His sharp performance reminded me a bit of the blond bully who torments Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, which sadly hasn’t aged as well as this film. His fellow gang members are all well played by mostly unknown Canadian actors who wisely present themselves as cheerful sadists with no moral lines to cross because they don’t believe in restraint. It’s clear as the movie progresses that, without fierce resistance, it’s only a matter of time before they become savage murderers.
Perry King is well cast as their arch nemesis, a decent man whose increasingly volatile situation demands increasingly hostile responses and therefore, the erosion of his core values. That erosion, however, is necessary to his survival even if it blackens his once peaceful soul. Roddy McDowell is also good as the crestfallen biology teacher who feels absolutely broken by his lack of scholastic progress. (He could’ve been given funnier lines in his earlier scenes, though, which are far less heavy.) Although he initially advises Norris to go along to get along to avoid crossing Stegman and company, once his lab animals are massacred he becomes unhinged.
We’re told over and over again that it’s next to impossible to implicate Stegman’s gang in any number of crimes they commit because of the lack of cooperative witnesses. But even despite that, they’re able to avoid serious prison sentences because of the numerous legal loopholes for young offenders like them.
What about DNA? It’s never mentioned. Then again, proper forensic testing wasn’t widely available as it is today. But never mind.
What matters is that this is a well-crafted thriller, terrifying in its message and oh so satisfying in its resolution. Like Quentin Tarantino’s far superior Inglourious Basterds, Class Of 1984 knows full well that the only good Nazi is a dead one.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 8, 2017