“I am the future!” — Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) in Class of 1984 (1982)
In many ways, the classic exploitation film Class of 1984 feels like an update of Blackboard Jungle. An idealistic teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King) takes a job teaching at a crime-ridden inner city school. There are a few differences. For one thing, the teacher in Class of 1984 teaches music. The graffiti-covered school in Class of 1984 looks a hundreds times worse than the one in Blackboard Jungle. Sidney Poitier is nowhere to be seen in Class of 1984 though Michael J. Fox does show up as one of the good students. Bad student Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) and his gang are a lot more colorful and flamboyant than Vic Morrow ever was in Blackboard Jungle.
And, of course, the main difference between Blackboard Jungle and Class of 1984 is that, in the former film, teacher Glenn Ford’s liberal idealism ultimately defeated the forces of juvenile delinquency. Ford may have been tempted to turn violent but, ultimately, he appealed to the better instincts of his other students and the world was better for it.
In Class of 1984, Andy Norris may start off as a liberal idealist but, ultimately, he reveals himself to be just as violent as his students. And again, the world appears to be better for it.
(I imagine that, when this film was originally released, a lot of teachers probably watched it as a form of wish-fulfillment.)
Now, Andy’s actions may be extreme but he has his reasons. Just consider everything that happened to him after he started teaching.
First off, his best friend and fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) was driven insane by the school’s students. Terry eventually ended up teaching while pointing a gun at his entire class. (The scene where McDowall finally gets his class to pay attention is one of the best in the film, largely due to McDowall’s excellent performance. The look of happiness that crosses his face when a student finally gives him the correct answer is both disturbing and funny at the same time.)
Secondly, his best student (that would be Michael J. Fox) ended up getting stabbed in the cafeteria by one of Stegman’s goons.
And finally, Stegman and his gang assaulted Andy’s wife.
Can you blame Andy Norris for taking the law into his own hands?
Now, me, I have a tendency towards being a bleeding heart when it comes to those living on the fringes of society. I’m against the death penalty. I’m against the war on drugs. I’m against violence. I believe in compassion. I believe in understanding. I believe in love. But even with all that in mind, I couldn’t help but enjoy Class of 1984. Some of that is because the film is surprisingly well-acted. You find yourself really caring about the characters played Perry King and Roddy McDowall and you also find yourself really hating Peter Stegman and his goons. I don’t care how compassionate you are, there’s something very cathartic about watching Andy finally get back at his tormentors. And then there’s the fact that, of all the directors to work in what has been termed the “exploitation” field, Mark Lester is one of the best. He’s one of those directors who knows exactly how to tell a story and what buttons to push to get the proper emotional respect.
But mostly, the film works because of Timothy Van Patten’s performance as Peter Stegman. Van Patten makes Stegman into one of the definitive teenage psychos. As intimidating as Van Patten is, his best moments come when the film reveals the type of person that Stegman could have been if not for the fact that he’s a total sociopath. At one point, when Andy tries to kick him out of music class, Stegman responds by sitting down at a piano and playing a beautiful piece of music. Perhaps my favorite Stegman moments comes late in the film, when he’s seen sweetly talking to his devoted (and clueless) mother.
Not surprisingly for a film that was released over 30 years ago, Class of 1984 is undeniably dated. But it doesn’t matter because Class of 1984 captures a universal and timeless truth. There are always going to be frustrated teachers and dangerous students. The only thing that changes is how society deals with the frustration and the danger.