With summer on its way out the door, school is slowly coming back into session for students across the globe! And unless you’re a parent looking for much-needed respite from a gaggle of kids, going back to school is the worst.
For me, the first day back from summer vacation always brought with it a wave of anxiety. It’s like a grander sense of the dreaded “Sunday Blues”, except rather than snapping back after a few days off, you’re diving into the deep end after months free from responsibilities.
So going back to school is a drag! But while every school comes with its own archaic codes of conduct and strict administrations, cinema lets us know that it could always be worse.
There could be a nuclear spill nearby, turning your classmates into toxic baddies! Perhaps thanks to some military brats, any number of well trained terrorist organizations could have decided to take your school hostage. Hell, the entire town could be conspiring to turn juvenile delinquents into zombified goodie two shoes! If you thought your experience was bad, count your lucky stars that you aren’t going back to any of these schools.
Class of 1984 (1982)
School: Lincoln High
Class of 1984 is a film where if you asked the question “How can I get my kids into the Death Wish franchise?” this would be the natural response.
What feels like an After School Special given free reign to really lean into its deviant behavior, the film follows Andrew Norris (Perry King) as he begins his first day at the dreaded Lincoln High. Lincoln High you see, thanks to some handy (and ominously silent) intertitles before the film, isn’t like other schools…yet. Filmed in 1982 and set in 1984, writer Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) pitches the story just barely in the future to warn us of what our kids could become if we don’t get that pesky sex, drugs, and violence out of our schools!
If that wasn’t enticing enough, the opening song I Am The Future features the lyrics “When does a dream become a nightmare?” sung by Alice Cooper and co-written by Lalo Schifrin, composer of Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, and The Amityville Horror. WHAT THE WHAT?!
Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)
School: Tromaville High
Tromaville, dubbed the “Toxic Chemical Capital of the World”, is the oddball borough nestled in the backwoods of New Jersey (or Greenpoint, Brooklyn but who’s really keeping track) where a gang called The Cretins are selling some toxic tinted cannabis to the kids of Tromaville High. But rather than getting stoned, the weed is changing the student bodies in ways that were not covered in health class!
Class of Nuke ‘Em High is Troma doing what it does best: innocent fun with a motley crew of wacky performances, over the top special effects, and enough blood and boobs to keep any high school aged boy (or girl!) sated. This ain’t no Fellini film, Lloyd Kaufman cleverly reminds us, but rather the ultimate party movie! Class of Nuke ‘Em High is chock full of enough what the fuckery to keep even the most hardened genre vets rolling in the aisles.
Unman Wittering And Zigo (1971)
School: The Chantry School
As a former teacher myself, it isn’t just students who don’t look forward to school starting again. Teachers also have that dreaded pit in their stomach when classes begin, despite teaching being their passion. But can you blame David Hemmings for having first day jitters, especially when he fears his new students killed the teacher he’s replacing? NOPE!
Unman, Wittering and Zigo is a dark, morally ambiguous look into the dangers of school bullying and the sociopathic games students play with each other. David Hemmings as new teacher John Ebony feels cut from the same cloth of other ‘Angry Young Man’ roles of the time like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, frustrated and stuck, unable to convince himself and others of his classes admission to murder.
Featuring a cast of young, relatively forgotten actors (the exception being a baby-faced Michael Kitchen), the group-think of the students is the most chilling aspect of the film. The way the boys communicate with Ebony, individual voices, one after another, stringing separate sentences to form one individual thought is utterly unnerving and a gimmick that has never felt eerier. Like the old one-word story improv exercise, but with far greater hopelessness. Unman, Wittering, and Zigo is an unexpected gut punch lost in the obscurity of early 70’s British cinema.
School: Shady Glens
From the school’s facade, Shady Glens looks picturesque and gorgeous. But on the inside you, unfortunately, have to deal with insufferable teenage hackers like Vincent Kartheiser’s Ozzie, skateboarding on to campus in knock-off Sunglass Hut shades like he watches Hackers for P.E.
He gets his high by pirating games through back channels online that look less like hacking and more like playing a terrible screensaver for House of The Dead. But slightly worse than that is new headmaster Rafe Bentley (Patrick Stewart) and his terrorist cronies holding the children of Shady Glen for ransom, and Ozzie is caught in the middle with nothing to do but save the day! Oh and just when you thought this film was sounding an awful lot like Die Hard, they make sure to have a throwaway line referencing the film as if to say “Look, we know it, you know it, what’s the big deal!”
But guess what! I thought this movie rocked when I was 9 years old. And frankly with its impeccably composed cinematography oozing the creative freedom of the 90s and a deliriously entertaining villain turn from Patrick Stewart….it still kind of does rock. There’s plenty to laugh at, sure, but there’s also plenty more to smile at and say to yourself “Nine years old was a great age to watch movies.”
Toy Soldiers (1991)
School: The Regis School
Who knew that a similar plot to Masterminds was hiding in Toy Soldiers, a film where terrorist Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff) holds a prep school ransom full of the children of military and government officials. Oh, and one expelled-from-three-schools Sean Astin. Full of parental problems, Astin’s Billy Tepper is taken under the wing of Dean Parker (Lou Gosset Jr.), the schools’ disciplinarian and father figure, as Billy hatches a plot with his friends to save the school.
Cali turns into a terrorist headmaster as he keeps the children alive, bizarrely allowed to sort of just…hang out, as hostages, while they wait for Cali’s own father to be released from prison. While I’m sure Cali’s empathy was a side effect of the studio and the public not wanting to see a bunch of kids getting shot by terrorists, it does make for a refreshing change of pace from the typical Die Hard scenario where characters keep dying…harder.
Toy Soldiers is a quasi-emotional coming of age action film that’s meant to tug heartstrings while getting your blood pumping. And while it doesn’t necessarily succeed in either endeavors, it makes for an admirable cinematic experiment.