Summer Shocks 1990: Class of 1999

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Jeff goes back to school

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

Teaching high school in America never gets any easier. Besides the hurdles of ever-shrinking budgets for schools to overcome, for whatever societal reasons, each succeeding generation of adolescents presents an even bigger discipline problem than the one before them. Just when you think that teens can’t get any ruder or more hostile, they do. Stepping in front of a class full of high school students and trying to force some knowledge into their heads – well, it takes a steel resolve.

That steel resolve becomes literal in director Mark L. Lester’s future-set shocker Class of 1999 as experimental robots – or “tactical education units” – are installed as teachers in the Seattle-based school of Kennedy High, an establishment so violent it’s on the point of anarchy. As explained in an opening narration that recalls Escape from New York (1981), in the future, gang violence has become so out of control that even the police won’t enter into certain neighborhoods (known as “free-fire zones”). This lack of law enforcement presents a serious problem for school administrators. At Kennedy High, the school mascot is a chalk outline.

Given the impossible task of managing this tutorial Titanic, it’s hard to blame well-meaning principal Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell) for making a deal with the devil by accepting the offer of robotics expert Dr. Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach, sporting an albino wig and creepy contact lenses) to be the first US school to implement a program that will put teachers in classrooms who won’t flinch at the threat of gang violence. To teach in a school as dangerous as Kennedy High and not be afraid, you’d have to be inhuman and that’s where these robots come in. Soon the students of Kennedy High are introduced to their new phys-Ed teacher Mr. Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick); their new history teacher, Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan); and their new math teacher, Ms. Connors (Pam Grier) but aren’t informed that these new instructors originally came off an assembly line.

These clockwork chaperons are ready for whatever the student body has in store for them and starting with their first day of instruction at Kennedy High, these teachers are making classroom insubordination a thing of the past. Mr. Hardin even brings back capital punishment as he puts students over his knee for spankings. Ensconced away from the action, Dr. Forrest monitors the progress of his handiwork with pride. These robots are going to restore order in a way that flesh and blood teachers never could.

Of course, robots in sci-fi and horror movies never quite seem to work the way they were meant to. Or else they do but in following their programming to the letter, their “success” only proves the underlying error of their mission. Sure enough, Dr. Forrest’s dream team proves to be a little too zealous in getting the students of Kennedy High in line. Originally built for military purposes, these robots have classified the students as an enemy in need of elimination. Director Lester, along with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (who wrote the Class of 1999 script based on Lester’s outline), could’ve easily used this premise to play into the fears of adult society towards its youth and made their robots into cybernetic saviors, issuing some much-needed ass kickings – as in Lester’s connected-in-spirit-only predecessor to this film, Class of 1984 (1982), in which he made the audience cheer on a teacher’s revenge against his sociopathic students. Instead, these robots are villains from the start and the punk kids are the misunderstood heroes.

The kids in this film aren’t portrayed as being pillars of the community – for the most part, they’re violent, anti-social, drug addicted scum. But some of these kids give us a reason to hold out hope for the future – like Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), who has recently been released from prison and is determined to not fall back in with the gang culture.

Turning his back on the gangs will prove hard for Cody, what with his younger brother Angel (Joshua Miller) eagerly joining up with Cody’s old crew. But then, Cody’s preoccupied with his burgeoning relationship with the principal’s clean-cut daughter Christy (Traci Lind), who obviously has a penchant for bad boys. Oh, and Cody is also the only student in Kennedy High that suspects that the school’s newest faculty members might be even more lethal than asbestos in the ceiling tiles (he memorably describes these mechanical adversaries as being “like a bad, fucked-up, George Jetson nightmare!”). So Cody’s latest after school activities are fact-finding missions about these teachers. Before long, he’s got the initially skeptical Christy doing some amateur investigating along with him and these robots are all kinds of pissed about that.

Thanks to Cody, the kids come to realize what they’re up against (as Cody bluntly describes the situation, “Inside this school are three inhuman teaching monsters!”) and faster than you can say “we don’t need no education,” war breaks out in the halls of Kennedy High with a climatic battle that still stands as the last word on Uzi-packing punks vs. robotic teachers (Cody’s words to rally his troops as they stand gathered outside the gates of Kennedy High make for a classic motivational speech: “You’ve got to know who your real enemies are! Now I’m going in there to waste some teachers – are you with me?”).

As summers go, the summer of 1990 wasn’t the greatest for movie fans – and for genre fans in particular – but there was still some fun to be had and Class of 1999 was about as much fun as you could find. While it may be a 1990 film, this movie plays like pure ‘80s goodness. Rather than anticipating future fashions (a cost prohibitive exercise for a low budget film with a lot of extras), all the gang members simply dress like ‘80s punks and the FX are completely untouched by the then-rising CG technology. Quality-wise, Class of 1999 may not have been the best genre film in theaters that summer (not with the likes of Gremlins 2, Darkman, Exorcist III, and The Witches playing) but it was the best – really the only – pure B-grade exploitation film to be found for that and I’ll happily put it on a pedestal. It may be missing one of the cornerstones of exploitation cinema, gratuitous nudity, but in all other aspects, Class of 1999 gets a passing grade.

The cast is top of the line – most notably Malcolm McDowell, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, and Joshua Miller (the epitome of creepy kids, most famous for his roles in Near Dark and River’s Edge). But Bradley Gregg (who played Philip, the kid who liked to sculpt puppets in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors) also makes an effectively surly hero and character actor John P. Ryan (Runaway Train) makes for the most enthusiastic of the robots teachers, getting all the great lines (as he’s about to drill through a kid’s skull: “I love to mold young minds!”). And on the technical front, the film’s FX team, headed up by Eric Allard, pulled out all the stops that the meager production budget would allow, pulling off some great bits. When the teachers reveal their factory-made body parts, like flame-throwers for forearms, it looks damn good. Admittedly, when one of the teachers becomes little more than a Terminator-esque steel skeleton, it does look a little fake. But if we’re talking about a robot, is that really a fair criticism?

Speaking of robots, even though Class of 1999 takes obvious inspiration from every robot and cyborg movie that came before it – from Westworld (1973) to The Terminator (1984) to Robocop (1987) – I like that Lester and Joyner abandoned the customary cliché of emotionless machines in favor of having their robots inexplicably take glee in their work. Ryan’s zealous, sadistic history teacher, in particular, behaves like no other robot. These machines have a personal stake in their work that belies their status as artificial entities. Ironically, their creator, the chilly Dr. Forrest, is more robotic in his demeanor than the machines he designed. I don’t know – maybe these things have emotion chips in them or something. Or maybe Lester and Joyner correctly realized that logic is less important than having fun. This is a trashy tale of evil robots, after all, not a scientific manual.

Lester’s directing career may have never again hit the commercial high of Commando (1985) but this film (along with 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo) is a reminder that he did graduate to other worthy accomplishments. Class of 1999 might not be able to go to the head of the class but it can still teach today’s filmmakers a thing or two on how to stage a satisfying B-movie. Even in 1990, the events at Kennedy High seemed old school.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’90:

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (May 4th)

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (June 15th)

Arachnophobia (July 18th)

Flatliners (August 10th)

Exorcist III (August 17th)

Darkman (August 24th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan






Source: Jeff Allard

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Weekend: Oct. 18, 2018, Oct. 21, 2018

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