How a Tale of at Risk Youth Became the Edgiest Teen Film of the 80s [Rewind]
Director Mark L. Lester is known for many things. Roller Boogie, Pterodactyl and Showdown in Little Tokyo are one side of this iconoclastic coin. The other side includes movies like Firestarter, Armed and Dangerous and the legendary Commando. Yes, for all that Mr. Lester has given the world of cinema, he helmed this Arnold Schwarzenegger kill-fest, which saw that iconic actor head to Latin America on a death mission after some bad guys kidnap his daughter. The action is tight, on point, and this film works in just about any era because it is so visceral. In fact, Lester acquits himself so well here that one wonders why he didn’t make Predator or Total Recall?
However, somewhere amidst the big budget Hollywood films and the cult classics, Mark L. Lester managed to helm a film called Class of 1984. This gem from 1982 is neither big budget nor as fun as any of the films already mentioned. What it is is a genre take on “at risk” teen films seen through the eyes of a man approaching middle age. Perry King stars as Andrew Norris. He’s a good teacher in a bad school. Norris teaches band and after dealing with Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) and his band of troublemaking students, he comes to realize that the band students are actually pretty good. The fact that Norris wants to do something positive naturally puts him at odds with Stegman. Norris also realizes that Stegman and Co. are pushing drugs. Suddenly, Class of 1984 becomes a game of tit for tat. However, Norris gives up trying to reach Stegman. This is made even more complicated when Norris realizes that Stegman is also an accomplished pianist. In addition to this Norris has seen one of his pupils, Arthur (Michael J. Fox, then credited as Michael Fox), stabbed by another one of Stegman’s cronies. Things take a savage turn on the night that the school orchestra gives a performance. Stegman and his thugs brutalize and rape Norris’s wife. Norris then goes after each one of the thugs who have inexplicably come back to the school. He murders each one of them with the final kill coming in the form of Peter Stegman who more than deserves it.
Made for $3.2 million this film tripled its budget by bringing in $7 million. If you throw in home video and all the other ancillary markets, Class of 1984 had to at least have made $15-20 million, right? From the first frame it is obvious that what we are watching is a low budget affair. Still, this movie had many things going for it. It was filled with solid performers like King, Fox, and Van Patten. The film was on the cutting edge of punk rock music and actually portrays that subculture in a frank and honest way. Class of 1984 is so frank in terms of its violence and sexual content that it both repels and draws you to it at once. In many ways, it is easy to write a low budget movie like this off as merely a violent, fun, teen flick. The reality is that Class of 1984 led no less a movie authority than Roger Elbert to call its ending a “Grand Guignol conclusion.” That alone is reason enough to call Class of 1984 the coolest teen flick ever.
Class of 1984 outpunked Suburbia.
Suburbia is clearly a punk rock film. Director Penelope Spheeris, to this day, has made the most legitimate, narrative, punk rock film in existence. There are some very good films like Green Room that capture a bit of that scene, but with bands like D.I., The Vandals and T.S.O.L. actually playing in the movie, Suburbia gets the all time punk rock prize. That movie came out in 1983. Class of 1984 came out in 1982 and it featured punk rockers the likes of which cinema had never seen. Sure, the punkers in Suburbia were real punkers. Many of them lived on the street, they were part of the scene, and Penelope Spheeris very much made the movie around their exploits. The punk rockers in Class of 1984 are hyper-realized. Director Mark L. Lester has long said that he was inspired by A Clockwork Orange. That incredible film from Stanley Kubrick was, and remains, the gold standard for the shocking teen flick. Class of 1984 is so well done that it remains shocking even in the shadow of that. This all matters because as down as Suburbia is, from a filmmaking standpoint it can’t hold a candle to Class of 1984. That film featured better actors, better filmmaking acumen, and a better story and plot. The punk rock scenes in Class of 1984, though Hollywood-esque, are no less impactful. These characters seem dangerous. Their motivations and ways of acting make almost zero sense at the times. In the opening of the film when Norris first encounters Stegman, he is bewildered and shocked that a student could be so belligerent. So are we as viewers because we’ve probably never seen anybody act this way in real life. That feeling of danger, of being scared, is punk rock incarnate. Watch any documentaries when people talk about the nascent days of the scene. That feeling of menace is palpable at all times and it’s much more palpable in Class of 1984 than it is in Suburbia.
Class of 1984 captured the zeitgeist of 1980s culture.
Class of 1984 very literally foreshadows the internet, WebMD, Ritalin induced parents who have spawned children in 2019. However, in Class of 1984 the teens depicted are the children of the 1970s, Me Era generation come home too roost. As many people will tell you, the punk scene in the late 70s/early 1980s was very much a reaction to the everything about the gaudy 1970s. It was a big middle finger to arena rock bands, family values, and obeying institutions that didn’t even believe in the very rules and tenets they were espousing. Class of 1984 captures this with parents who are merely automatons acting at the behest of their children. That is if they aren’t so aloof as to not notice that they need to act at all. When Norris goes to confront Stegman’s mom, she literally babies her son and spurns Norris. In 2019, we see this in helicopter/steamroller parents who are so devoted to their kids that they don’t realize they are smothering their ability to cope with the realities of the real world. Going back to the Class of 1984 (much like today), we have Stegman’s group who hates everyone and everything because they never wanted for anything. Why would they respect authority? Why would they care about their lives or their future? The tagline of this film is, “We are the future! … And nothing can stop us”. This isn’t so much a warning as it is a declaration of reality. Sure, the look of the teens was hyper-realized. The clothing of the punk rockers had that new/old design that, for 1982, almost make Stegman and his mob look futuristic. For many people coming of age during the 1980s, this was both our reality and our future. We had a political administration in the form of Ronald Reagan that was hellbent on bringing us back to the good ole days. They were going to make things right. It’s why we saw the preppy look take hold. Polo shirts, jeans and loafers were meant to represent a return to “on the face of it” conservatism. However, these students are upended by Stegman and Co. With their drug pushing and outrageous antics, they are a parents worst nightmare and one of their own making. Alice Cooper does the title track for this movie titled, “I Am The Future.” The chorus has the lyric, “Take a look at my face/I am the future/How do you like what you see?” That one line sums up the entire reason why this film captured the youth culture’s ambivalence and anger at this time. Quite frankly, they didn’t think they had a future at all.
Class of 1984 gave insights into the future direction of high schools.
School teachers not getting the funding they need is a story as old as time. That’s because it’s true. However, in Class of 1984 the school is barely standing. The walls are drab, the attitudes are bad, and the overworked security forces can’t keep an eye on the contraband coming into the schools. The teachers are all burned out and the students are withdrawn. Heck, from the picture that Class of 1984 paints one might think that there wouldn’t be any high schools in 2019. Well, that isn’t the case, however, with the rise of the internet and home schooling, it wouldn’t be surprising if 20-30 years from now they aren’t. All one needs to do is visit just about any school today and you will find that engagement isn’t what it once was. Phones, tablets and laptops have everybody’s attention. Students need answers but rather than ask a teacher or use critical thinking, they hit a few keystrokes believing that Google is the answer to everything. Many of them live on YouTube and Wikipedia getting information that’s all equal and as such means nothing. When Stegman boasts about being unstoppable it seems like hyperbole. Especially given what happens at the end of Class of 1984. However, his angry, confrontational, yet hungry for knowledge nature lives on. Not all students are disengaged automatons. Many want to learn but are just mired on the technology mess that we live in today. Ironically, it might be the very ambivalence which causes Stegman to seek an alternative education, that ultimately ends up saving this current generation. It may have in fact have saved Stegman and his friends had he not been so hellbent on self-destruction.
Class of 1984 was an Afterschool special on crack.
Class of 1984, like The New Kids which came out in 1985 , was truly like an Afterschool Special on crack. How else to explain how it completely subverted what a teen flick was supposed to be? With films like Teenage Doll and Rock All Night that man practically invented the youth culture genre. A movie like Class of 1984 probably wasn’t something he ever sought to create. Mark L. Lester, with merely a drab high school setting, has a given us such a dystopian vision of the future that it’s downright impossible to be hopeful. Afterschool Specials were all about hope. Whether they were about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, punk rock, or whatever subjects those gems from 30 plus years ago captured, we remember them because amidst taking on such real world subjects they were also really funny. Honestly, how could they not be? In the middle of the day between cartoons, you had these movies that were so self-serious and melodramatic. How could you not laugh at a family afraid that their child would become a punk rocker? Or, the animated short about a father and son not wanting to kill a certain animal because it’s going to become extinct? Or, the boy who has to face that his mom and dad are splitting up? As I said, none of these subjects are really anything to joke about. The Afterschool Special really had its heart in the right place, it just got completely obliterated by a film Class of 1984. With Class of 1984 mired in a world or luridness, it’s really hard to look at an Afterschool Special as if it had anything to say. Class of 1984 presents things with a fairly straight forward plot. This film is essentially Lean On Me, with the only difference being that its evil characters and ultra-violent plot make it seem like it’s on another planet compared to those aforementioned films.
Class of 1984 introduced us to Michael J. Fox.
Michael J. Fox always had it. Even in the very small role of Arthur in Class of 1984, Michael J. Fox absolutely shines in every scene he’s in. The way he moves throughout the film, both avoiding and not avoiding the wrath of Peter Stegman, is really quite an accomplishment. The fact that he becomes one of Stegman’s victims only seems to make his work on this project that much more bittersweet. Whether he is playing in the band, cruising around the halls of the high school, or simply having a talk with Mr. Norris, Michael J. Fox would show the spark he had in Midnight Madness and have that fan the flame of Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. So touching is his performance as the young band student, that it’s impossible not be genuinely saddened when his character gets hurt in this film. He is truly the heart and soul of Class of 1984. He wants to to just have a good time and get the most of his high school experience. Somehow he is almost able to do that, even with the oppressive Stegman and Co. nipping and his heels. Class of 1984 introduced us to Michael J. Fox. Sure, he had done some other other projects before this, but it was this role that he would soon follow with such popular films as Teen Wolf, Back to the Future and The Secret of My Success just to name a few. Sure, there would’ve been some other film that would’ve ultimately given us this American (by way of Canada) Treasure, but to shine so brightly in such a groundbreaking film as Class of 1984 makes Michael J. Fox’s glowing star shine just a little brighter.