A review requested by Salim "STinG" Garami, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I'll freely admit that I can't tell if Class of 1984 is a good movie or not. On the one hand, it's unmixed, trashy exploitation, portraying a most overheated melodrama that plays on the audience's prurient fear of subcultural elements. And I honestly don't know if I'm putting that in the "good" or "not" pile. On the other hand, it's a rather ingenious attempt at refurbishing the old juvenile delinquency films of the '50s in a critical, possibly even satirical light, where the Forces of Civil Good are revealed to be just as fucked up as the rotten, antisocial kids they're facing down. It's the Blackboard Jungle-meets-Death Wish mash-up that I suspect nobody was asking for in 1982, but having received it, I'm shocked and delighted by how organically those two things slot together. Basically, we have here a movie that looks like trash, and sounds like trash, because it is trash, but trash with a much bigger brain than you'd be primed to expect. Unsurprisingly, if you check the label of this fascinatingly ambivalent motion picture, you discover that it's a Canadian production; oh, Canada, where they made all the best sleazy genre films in the 1980s.

What we have here, by the way, is one of the most important films in the "punksploitation" field. A subgenre that, if I understand the history of punk properly, missed the main wave of that subculture by some years: Rock 'n' Roll High School inaugurated the genre in 1979, but the vast majority of punk films are from the mid-'80s, well after punk's heyday. But nonetheless, there was enough of a social awareness of the punk scene, and enough of a concern amongst the Nice People that all these leather-and-Doc-Martens-wearing bastards with their acutely surly attitudes wanted nothing more than to spread their reign of assault and rape and vandalism and drug use and God knows what to every peaceable suburb in Reagan's America and Thatcher's England, that director/executive producer Mark L. Lester was able to create this stern "what if?" fable preying on exactly that fear. The film hits the ground running, by promising a most sordid but earnest and true map for how the punks are ruining the world and will continue to do so, right from the hot-and-bothered opening title card:
Last year, there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students against teachers and their classmates in American high schools.

Unfortunately, this film is based on true events.

Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High... yet.

The "true events" would appear to be the mere existence of punks, rather than some actual specific thing that happened out in the world, but that's hardly the kind of nicety that would ever stop a proper exploitation producer. As for Lincoln High, it's practically a war zone when we first see it, through the eyes of new music teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King). Everyone is patted down for weapons (most of them manage to smuggle them in anyway, and it's to the point that even the teachers are packing heat for their own safety. There's filth and chaotic teenagers and graffiti everywhere (the phrase "faculty parking lot" has been vandalised to read "fucklty parking lot"; reader, I chuckled). And this is, as far as it's possible to tell from the subsequent narrative, all due entirely to just five anti-social students: Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) is their leader, and it takes him just minutes in Norris's first class to decide that the optimistic, crusading teacher will be his nemesis.

The plot's really nothing that you wouldn't anticipate: Norris tries hard to reform the kids, but the punks only give him grief; he tries to focus on only the students who want it, like the highly put-together girl Deneen (Erin Flannery) or the sweet, shy Arthur (a pre-stardom Michael J. Fox, even more ludicrously baby-faced than he'd be for the next 20 years), but the punks get in his way and ruin the nice things he tries to do. Eventually, they spill into outright violence, beginning with a horrifying act of desecration in the classroom of biology teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), that sends him into a slightly mad response, pulling a sonofabitching gun on his students and forcing them to answer a pop quiz. The tipping point for Norris comes not much later, and his response is even more direct and dire than Corrigan's, and also a hell of a lot more effective.

Bog-standard JD material in enough ways; what makes it work is the thorny matter of Mr. Norris himself, a much greyer character than the genre typically supports, much greyer than he appears at a glance. Our expectation is that he's going to be a hero, and that whatever it takes to stop the punks will be justified and glamorised, and that's at least a little true: the film unquestionably takes sides against Stegman and crew, which automatically makes Norris the voice of sanity and reason. But there's something dark about his third-act behavior that troubles the film: the violence meted out against the students (for it is meted, of course) is decidedly horrifying, and filmed with an ugly directness that makes it seem actively unpleasant and cruel.

Then there's the matter of the film's closing title card, the real tell of what it's been about all along. With a fair degree of irony, the film explicitly compares Norris and Stegman's actions, making a snarky joke at the apparent rough justice being done, but in fact pointing out something simple and blunt: Norris is a violent vigilante and he's breaking the law. It's a hell of a potent beat to end on, sweeping through the audience so fast that it barely registers, and yet still tinting everything that precedes it. This despite moments where the film seems eager to let the teachers off the hook (it generally seems that Lester and his co-writers, John Saxton & Tom Holland, wanted to reward Corrigan after the gun incident, which is utterly horrible and batshit crazy), scattered throughout. The takeaway I think, is that violence corrupts, and violent environments turn even people as sincerely good as Norris or as sweet as Arthur into monsters.

It's all very nasty and apocalyptic, and acutely, explicitly, and repeatedly anti-punk, which makes it a bit odd to note that Class of 1984 ends up working pretty damn well as a capsule of where the punk ethos and fashion sense rested at the start of the 1980s. It's definitely not a film by punks, who would never have placed Alice Cooper's "I Am the Future" in the opening credits. It's hard to say that it's for punks, who it represents as goons lacking a solitary admirable or likable trait. Yet it's impressively, and with great even-handedness, about punks, fascinated with how Stegman and the gang live and dress and occupy themselves.

All of this is unquestionably interesting and far more complicated than the "teacher saves the day" story that it looks like. What this isn't, necessarily, is well-made: for all its cultural fascination, Class of 1984 is in too many ways somewhat ofΒ  a piece of crap. The acting is a major liability, with all four of Stegman's followers coming across as big cartoon thugs. Critically, King's performance of Norris feels unfortunately flat and insincere, and there's always a certain smug self-regard about him that's intriguingly contrary to the genre rules, but which still mostly handicaps the lead character in the film. After all, we are meant to sympathise with his aims, and King makes that very hard. It makes sense that Fox presently became a star; he's the only member of the cast who can actually invest his character with emotional life.

The film has a constellation of other, smaller issues - the dialogue is often risibly functional, and the whole subplot with the good kids playing music doesn't yield enough for the amount of screentime it occupies - but focusing on the negative feels wrong here. It's got a proper spark, Class of 1984 does, even granting that it's been made according to generally very generic aesthetic guidelines, just one more low-budget film in a sea of them. It's the novelty of seeing punks replace the usual '50s JD sorts in a '50s JD narrative framework, in part. It's also very much the case that, no matter how much of an anti-punk fervor the film tries to whip up, it's obviously fascinated by the trappings of punk style and wants to depict them with some level of dignity. At places, such as the strange hooker-interview in the back of a punk club, Class of 1984 is essentially a hybrid of ethnography and soapy potboiler, right there in the same shot. That's a weird thing to praise a movie for, and yet Class of 1984 offers such a fascinating time capsule look at a half-real, half-nightmare subculture, it doesn't actually need more effective dialogue and acting to be a compelling watch.