CUTTING CLASS (1989)

"How could I perfect the art of killing? Or better yet, take the ultimate professional challenge – and kill beyond the confinements of time or space…."

Director: Rospo Pallenberg
Starring: Jill Schoelen, Donovan Leitch, Brad Pitt, Roddy McDowall, Martin Mull, Brenda Klemme, Mark Barnet, Robert Glaudini, Eric Boles, Dirk Blocker, Robert Machray
Screenplay: Steve Slavkin

Synopsis: As William Carson (Martin Mull), District Attorney, leaves on his duck-shooting trip, he gives his daughter, Paula (Jill Schoelen), three instructions: do all of her homework; no boys in the house; and above all, no cutting class. Out in the marshlands, Carson hears someone call his name. The next moment, an arrow is fired through his body…. In gym class, Paula realises that she is being watched by Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch), a boy who has returned to the school after being institutionalised for several years for killing his father. Dwight Ingalls (Brad Pitt), Paula’s boyfriend, notices Brian’s interest in Paula and contrives to get him into trouble with the gym teacher, Coach Harris (Dirk Blocker). After school, at the local hangout, Paula sends Dwight to get her a hotdog. Overhearing, Brian offers her his. When Dwight returns he is furious, telling Brian that although they were once friends that’s all over now, and warning him to stay away from Paula. Against Dwight’s wishes, Paula poses for her art class. Brian sneaks into the class to spy on her and is caught by the teacher, Mr Conklin (Robert Machray), who forces him to pose as well. Principal Dante (Roddy McDowall) calls Paula to his office to show her the new cheerleaders’ outfits, taking the opportunity to look up her skirt. Later that day, someone sneaks up behind the art teacher and traps him in his own kiln…. Dwight waits for Paula, getting mad when she insists on studying rather than spending the evening with him. Dwight goes back to the school to get his books, but the janitor, Shultz (Robert Glaudini), has locked up and refuses to admit him. That night, Paula hears a knock on her front door. She answers it, but there is no-one there. She doesn’t see Brian watching her from across the street…. Later, there is another knock, and this time Paula finds Dwight, Gary (Mark Barnet) and Colleen (Brenda Klemme) at her door. Dwight asks her for the key to the school files, which she has as a result of her part-time job in the school office, telling her he wants a look at Brian’s record. When Paula refuses, the others pressure her, and she finally agrees to hand it over in return for the ring Dwight always wears. The four break into the school, evading Shultz, who they hear talking to himself. In Brian’s file they find a medical report that says that he was diagnosed as a violent schizophrenic and subjected to electro-convulsive therapy. Gary photocopies the report. The next day, Brian shows Dwight up in class. Dwight tries to make the medical report public, but the math teacher, Mr Glynn, stops him, warning Dwight that he is close to failing. In the marshlands, a biology class on a field trip does not hear the seriously injured William Carson as he calls for help…. Colleen decides to spice up her cheerleading routine by doing it without wearing any panties. Dwight’s father arranges for a college scout to watch him play basketball, but Dwight loses his temper on court and blows his chance. Gary lures Colleen beneath the bleachers, but the two are not alone. As an unseen assailant cuts Gary’s throat, Colleen’s screams are drowned by the cheering of the crowd….

Comments: What a nasty, stupid, hypocritical piece of junk this film is! Produced during the late eighties, when the slasher film was going through what some of us devoutly hoped (over-optimistically, as it turned out) were its death throes, Cutting Class is one of those movies that makes you wonder why anyone bothered. Some sources call this film a "spoof", and so it is, inasmuch as horror movies that try to be scary and fail dismally are always referred to after the event as a "spoof". So lazy is the screenplay for Cutting Class that it can’t even be bothered giving us a decent batch of suspects. Roddy McDowall (cripes, Roddy, why??) is Red Herring #1, the lecherous headmaster Mr Dante (ho, ho), who divides his spare time between dressing up in costumes belonging to the drama class, and figuring out new ways of getting a look up the girls’ skirts. Dante’s partner in herring-dom is (surprise!) the school janitor, Shultz, who spends a great deal of time talking to himself, cleaning up after murders without reporting them, and spouting groan-worthy dialogue like, "I am the custodian of your fucking destiny!!" (Who hires these people!?) The writing is so feeble that we never believe for a moment that either of these horror movie clichés could actually be the killer, which leaves us with a choice of just two suspects: schizophrenic father-killer Brian, and trigger-tempered, hard drinking Dwight. The script zig-zags between the two boys in a way that is probably meant to keep the audience guessing, but instead feels like the film-makers themselves couldn’t quite made up their minds about it (or, like the rest of us, were having trouble maintaining interest in the project). The victims are equally uninspiring. There are only two outright "body count" murders, those of Colleen, the "good girl"’s inevitable slutty best friend, who likes livening up pep rallies by cheerleading knickerless; and her boyfriend Gary, who gets his jollies by lurking beneath the bleachers and looking up girls’ dresses (hmm…I guess you’d call that a "recurrent theme"). The rest of the victims are all teachers (yes, we are on rather thin ice here) who manage, very scrupulously, to anger both Brian and Dwight to equal extents. The one exception comes during the film’s opening sequence, wherein Paula’s father is shot with an arrow while duck hunting. The fact that the killer fails to finish Carson off, even though his victim has seen him and knows him, doesn’t exactly give us a high opinion of his abilities. (Carson, played by Martin Mull, spends the rest of the movie trying to crawl back home, only to confront death again when he gets there. While I dispute that Cutting Class is a spoof, I think this is meant to be "funny"….)

Cutting Class was made at a time of what critic Kim Newman calls "safe horror films" – films that want the horror movie market but don’t want to take the risk of actually upsetting anybody. This probably accounts for both the comparatively low body count, and the numbingly unimaginative and inexplicit murders. After the unsuccessful attempt on William Carson, we get the art teacher locked in his own kiln; a boy getting his throat rather discreetly cut; the Vice Principal – well, I’m not actually sure whether she’s bashed or strangled, but in either case, her death throes are photocopied for the edification of the entire community (and end up in the trash – um, aren’t they evidence? Still, I guess "evidence" would imply that someone cares what’s been going on. Until Paula suddenly announces, "Colleen and Gary and Mr Conklin are still missing!" we’re not sure that anyone’s even noticed the killings); the gym coach is impaled with the American flag while trampolining (I think this scene is supposed to "mean" something, but Lord knows what); and the math teacher gets an axe in the head. It is here that we discover why the film-makers might have steered clear of graphic violence: they really weren’t up to the challenge. The axe murder is the film’s real comic highlight, as the rubber implement wobbles precariously while being held to the victim’s forehead. (And if that don’t do it for you, we get the best Huh? cut since Claudia Barrett tied herself up in Robot Monster: check out the way the axe manages to bury itself about four inches deeper into Glynn’s forehead between shots!) It is after this that Paula Carson, who is Final Girl more by default than qualification, goes through the traditional "finding her friends’ bodies" ritual; and we realise that, incredibly, knickerless Colleen was killed offscreen. This restraint (or missed opportunity, however you prefer to look at it) is all the harder to understand given that, its overall lack of bloodshed notwithstanding, Cutting Class is a sleazy bit of work. While we might be short on dead bodies here, we see a fair few live ones: apart from the glimpses of Colleen in action, there is also a totally gratuitous look into the girls’ changing-room; while Brian breaks into Paula’s house at a time when, conveniently enough, she is clad only in a pair of panties (he offers her a robe, to show how he really cares for her, but not until the audience has had an eyeful). Now, I have no particular objection to any of this. This is, after all, just a crappy little horror film that exists for no other reason than to show the audience some boobs and some blood. What I do object to, however, is the film-makers’ flagrant hypocrisy. It’s one thing to make the Dante character a lecherous pervert; it is quite another to maintain an attitude towards Dante’s transgressions of "Tut-tut-tut, isn’t that terrible?" while nevertheless taking every opportunity to shove the camera as far as possible up the leading lady’s skirt.

And oh yes, that skirt. Paula Carson is one of the oddest "Final Girls" that I’ve ever come across. Not since Adrienne King’s Alice in Friday The 13th has a putative slasher film survivor transgressed so far to so little retribution. Our first glimpse of Paula is when she tiptoes out of her house to collect the morning paper while wearing the world’s shortest nightie, which she struggles to pull down to a more modest length. (At this point, we also get a good idea of the film’s general level of intelligence, as Paula’s father gets her attention by poking her in the armpit with his shotgun.) She goes through the rest of the film wearing skirts and shorts of equal, um, "length"; and spends a great deal of her time being encouraged by one character or another to bend over – and apparently, she never did learn that your supposed to bend the knees…. As befits your typical Final Girl, Paula won’t let Dwight have sex with her. However, she doesn’t just say "No", she says, "Not until your grades improve". All the students know Brian’s history, but Paula alone is nice to him. Unfortunately, she usually chooses to encourage him when Dwight’s around, with the result that she comes across less like "nice", and more like a deliberate little tease. Paula is supposed to be brainy and responsible, more standard FG qualities. We never see much evidence of the former, however, while as for the latter--- Paula works in the school office, and because she’s so "responsible", has been entrusted with the key to the students’ files. This precious item Paula not only hands over to her drunken boyfriend with a minimum of persuasion (actually, he "buys" it by giving her his ring), she then joins in as her friends break into the school and tamper with the records. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our supposed "identification figure". Now, it would be nice to think that screenwriter Steve Slavkin was trying to break a few rules here and do something different, but unfortunately, I think Paula’s objectionable behaviour is simply the result of inept writing: we’re supposed to like her, we just – don’t. In fact, there is not even one vaguely likeable character anywhere in this film, which makes the trip to the end credits still more of a slog. We are not helped by the film’s is-it-Brian-or-is-it-Dwight structure, which keeps the audience in constant company with its two thoroughly unpleasant leading men.

Cutting Class does, I think, intend to make us feel somewhat sorry for Brian, who at the age of twelve killed his abusive father by tampering with the brakes of his car, and who spent five years in an institution undergoing daily shock treatments. However, Brian’s fixation on Paula leads him to stalk her – there’s really no other way of describing it. Dwight, on the other hand, the supposedly "normal" guy, is that character so beloved of slasher film writers, the Utter Utter Arsehole. We first see him speeding in his inevitable sports car, drinking while he drives, and narrowly avoiding killing a toddler. ("Same time tomorrow?" he says cheerfully to the child’s terrified mother.) As usual, we are left bewildered as to what our "nice" heroine sees in her bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic boyfriend. (Well, there’s one obvious answer, I guess – but I’ll get to that later.) In scene after scene, Dwight explodes into anger and obscenities as his teachers try to get him to, God forbid, behave. (This plot thread culminates in a confrontation between Dwight and Coach Harris. "Fuck you, fuck you and fuck you!" says Dwight. "Fuck you, too!" responds the coach. This scene not only demonstrates beautifully Dwight Ingalls’ sterling personal qualities, it’s also a fair indication of the overall level of imagination at work in this film.) When Dwight’s father arranges for a college basketball scout to watch him, the boy goes to pieces under the pressure and ends up pummelling another player with his fists and being put out of the game. (Leading to the one line in the film that did make me laugh: Dwight’s dismayed realisation that to get into university, "I’ll have to rely on my brains!" Whether or not this was meant to be funny, it struck me as a nice dig at that mysterious American institution, the "Sports Scholarship".) Dwight reacts to this failure by getting drunker and drunker and angrier and angrier – and then the killings begin in earnest. But even as we are expected to feel sorry for Brian, the film makes an effort to drum up sympathy for Dwight by revealing that he, too, has an abusive father. (A plot twist which, I must say, really ticked me off. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing that a great deal of antisocial teenage behaviour stems from a rotten home environment, but it really annoys me when lazy screenwriters trot this kind of thing out as an all-purpose "explanation".) All things now being equal, the film moves into its final phase, the final revelation of the killer’s identity and the showdown between the three main characters. This sequence does have rather more energy than the rest of the film, and in its way is rather enjoyable – if you can overlook the fact that the killer suddenly starts slobbering and twitching and, worst of all, wisecracking. ("I am a murderer! It’s not as prestigious as being a doctor or a lawyer, but, hey! – the hours are good!") However, the killer is ultimately defeated as a result of doing something unbelievably stupid, and any positive vibes that might have been generated are instantly dissipated. In summation, Cutting Class is not just a bad film, it’s a dreary one. That it is not utterly negligible is due not to design, but to accident – something we examine further in "Skeletons Out Of The Closet". (The killer’s identity is revealed in this piece, so on the unlikely chance that you care, be warned!)