Streaming Pile: High School (Black and) Blues
Anyone who’s ever attended high school is familiar with the trauma that goes along with those four soul-crushing years: the bullying, the peer pressure, the insecurities, humiliation, and alienation. And that’s not even taking into account the obscenely early hours, the raging hormones, the awkward teacher-crushes, the existential dread about what to do after graduation, not to mention the recurring anxiety dreams (that often go on to plague entire lives). Plenty of teen films exist about the archetypal angsty American youth (John Hughes is of course the master), but there’s also a breed that addresses a different type of high-school experience, one that’s darker, more turbulent, and sometimes lewd or even sinister. Set in large part in the actual corridors of hell that is public school (private and reform schools have been omitted for the sake of concision), the films highlighted below are currently available for VOD viewing in the safety of your home.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that James Spader, a well-known presence in the Eighties and Nineties, was an integral part of my teen fantasy world. As preppie nightmare Steff in Pretty in Pink and slimy drug dealer Rip in Less Than Zero, he was the bad boy girls loved to hate—or secretly just loved. (After graduating from teenage roles, he continued to make sketchy sexy in the likes of sex, lies, and videotape, Crash, and Secretary…) But it’s two lesser-known edgy Spader performances from 1985, representing opposing sides of bullying, that stand out in the high-school hall of shame. In The New Kids (Amazon $2.99/$3.99 rental, $9.99/$12.99 purchase + Google Play $2.99 rental, $9.99 purchase + iTunes $3.99 rental, $12.99 purchase; quality: perfectly fine), by Friday the 13th director and Last House on the Left producer Sean S. Cunningham, he is chilling, in bleached-blonde hair, plaid shirts—and a touch of eye makeup?—as Dutra, the leader of a group of small-town hoodlums who make it their purpose to terrorize the new brother and sister Loren and Abby (Shannon Presby and Lori Loughlin) at school after Abby rejects Dutra's advances. But what they don’t know is that the siblings’ recently departed military father trained these crafty new kids well in survival—and they prove fearless in facing the brutes. I despised this film as a teenager, mostly because it felt unnecessarily grisly at times (hello, dead-rabbit-in-the-shower scene), but it’s now worthy of reappraisal. It even has a not-so-bad Lady from Shanghai–esque finale.
In Fritz Kiersch’s second feature (after Children of the Corn), Tuff Turf (Amazon, $2.99 rental, $5.99 purchase; quality: good), Spader himself plays the newbie, rebellious but decent ex-rich-kid Morgan, who not only promptly messes with the wrong crowd but falls for the lead bad-ass’s girl, Frankie (Kim Richards, with the longest, most awesomely crimped hair of the Eighties). She spurns his advances at first, but can’t resist him for long (under her super-tough veneer she is a softy, who’s recently lost her mother and quietly yearns for better than what life has so far offered). The two fall hard, but at a cost—her psycho fiancé refuses to let Frankie go without a fight, one that leads to a violent showdown. This film somehow got overlooked when it was released, perhaps because it touches on unusually adult themes for a teen movie of its time. Or maybe audiences couldn’t look past the sillier moments, like when Morgan sings a song (or lip-synchs it anyway) at a country club he and Frankie crash with friends (Olivia Barash and an adorable Robert Downey Jr.) or when, a few scenes later, Frankie exhibits some pretty fancy dance moves at a local music club. It can’t help either that critics panned it hard, with Roger Ebert calling it “the worst teenage exploitation movie since Where the Boys Are.” In any case, Tuff Turf is one of my all-time guilty pleasures… though I might be up to the challenge of arguing that it’s actually a good film.
Female rebels rule in the thoroughly entertaining High School Hellcats (Amazon Prime/$9.99 purchase + Netflix + Redbox Instant + Epix; quality: super-sharp but not widescreen), directed by Edward Bernds, perhaps the only person to be mistakenly nominated for an Oscar (for writing, in 1956—oops, two films named High Society that year!). As far as Rebel Without a Cause knockoffs go, this one, released three years later, rates high. And the cast couldn’t be any more perfect-looking—well, nothing could ever out-pretty James Dean and Natalie Wood—and there's some striking cinematography to match (courtesy of veteran DP Gilbert Warrenton). Unruly, bullying bad girls recruit the new student, wholesome but frustrated Joyce Martin (Yvonne Fedderson), into their gang. An only child to completely self-involved parents, Joyce hopes to find a home with the Hellcats, even if she isn’t down with their smoking, thieving, and general rule-breaking, but finds more comfortable refuge with the nice engineer student (Brett Halsey) who works at the local coffee shop—which is for the best because jealousy and much worse soon begin to tear the previously tight-knit Hellcats apart.
The year is 1961. In four years, child-actress Patty McCormack has grown from Bad Seed to good egg, playing Janet Sommers, an unusually thoughtful teen, who is weirdly surrounded by like-minded sorts. Have the pod people taken over the school in The Explosive Generation (Netflix + Redbox Instant + Epix; quality: fine), the tireless Buzz Kulik’s debut feature as director? (You might be wondering how a movie set at a school that could be called “Goody-Goody High” fits the bill for this column, but super-perky can be just as creepy as super-wicked, can’t it?) The senior class bands together for the friendliest of protests in support of their beloved teacher Mr. Gifford (William Shatner, at his absolute hottest), who good-naturedly allows his students to debate “sex” when Janet brings it up as a topic for discussion during their “Senior Problems” chat. But word gets out, the school staff and parents alike don’t condone it one bit, and an innocent incident gets completely blown out of proportion. This film, well worth checking out, is also notable for its intriguing supporting cast that includes Edward Platt as the principal, Virginia Field and Arch Johnson as Janet’s parents, Beau Bridges as one of her classmates, and Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn as her friend Marge’s mother.
Flash-forward six years to another, more outwardly progressive Southern California school, where a teacher is brought in from Sweden to actually teach sex ed or “anatomical biology” for the first time ever on a regular basis, in exploitation extraordinaire Jerry Gross’s Teenage Mother (Amazon, $1.99 rental/$7.99 purchase; quality: so lousy that Amazon refunded my money without my even asking). And, get this, the teacher’s a woman! Progressive indeed. A misleading title if there ever was one, the film features no pregnant teenager, much less one that actually gives birth. But these teens do have sex unlike the holdouts in The Explosive Generation. And Arlene (Arlene Farber), a confused girl, starved for attention and desperate for her boyfriend to marry her, goes so far as to pretend to be pregnant—which inadvertently gets the new teacher in hot water (the poor woman also has to contend with a cackling drug-dealing and -using student who attempts to rape her). Both The Explosive Generation and Teenage Mother can be seen as laughably dated, but, then again, has sex education really evolved so much?
A sultry, unlikable teen gives the teachers some sex training of their own in the hilariously inept 1979 trash-fest Malibu High (YouTube; quality: watchable)—just check out the IMDb Plot Keywords on this one! Director Irvin Berwick started out his Hollywood career as a voice coach, so it’s quite bemusing that his leading lady—Jill Lansing, in her only screen appearance, thank God—delivers her lines so terribly that the mute button will become your best friend. Lansing plays Kim, whose grades begin to slip after her boyfriend dumps her for the town’s rich bitch. Instead of allowing her chances for graduating to dwindle, she decides to seduce her teachers into trading sexual favors for good grades. The thrill she gets from this newfound power leads her down a path to prostitution, drugs, and, enticed by the easy money, she eventually even becomes a paid assassin! A wholly ridiculous film that somehow manages to keep you glued.
Reversing the customary gender and power roles, Pretty Maids All in a Row (iTunes $2.99 rental/$9.99 purchase + Vudu $2.99 rental/$9.99 purchase + GooglePlay $1.99 rental/$9.99 purchase) stars a commanding Rock Hudson as an oversexed (married with child) guidance counselor/football coach, nicknamed Tiger, who beds his cute young students—and murders a few of them too. But he does prove very helpful to one of his male students, an extra-horny 17-year-old virgin Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), who lusts after the new substitute teacher (Angie Dickinson). She of course in return lusts for the studly Tiger, but is far too old for his tastes, so he strategically steers her in Ponce’s direction. Roger Vadim’s continuously amusing 1971 black sex comedy—written and produced by Gene Roddenberry, and scored, like The New Kids, by Lalo Schifrin—is so wrong in all the right ways that it’s total insanity that the movie has been so difficult to track down until recently. (I initially viewed it in very good HD on Warner Archive, but they’ve since taken it down; their DVD, though, is still available for purchase.)
While human monsters are commonly found in high school, there are also the teenage movies with a supernatural bent, in which the not-so-hidden symbolism of monster transformations stands in for teens’ confusion and changing bodies. This, of course, is best captured by the wolfman. And for some reason these guys tend to love playing sports (or maybe their fur just looks good with a varsity jacket?). It began on-screen in 1957 with the unintentionally funny I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and in the Eighties, people immediately think of Teen Wolf (85)—perhaps because it spawned a sequel and not one but two TV series—in which the Michael J. Fox character’s werewolf powers turn him into the star of the basketball team. But that film was actually preceded by four years by Full Moon High (Amazon Prime + Netflix + Redbox Instant + Epix; quality: pretty good), a seriously silly, and sometimes genuinely funny, spoof written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen. An obnoxious dad (Ed McMahon) takes his football-hero son Tony (Adam Arkin) on a trip to Romania, where a fortune-teller predicts he will live forever and remain eternally young. (“Does that mean I’ll never be able to order a drink?” immediately wonders the shallow teen.) Soon after, he is attacked by a wolf, and once back at school, after taking down some terrorists who hijack their plane home, the killings begin—relayed to audiences through a series of ridiculous newspaper headlines (“Werewolf Annoys Community,” “Playful Nippings Continue,” “Wolfman Eats Chinese, 30 Minutes Later Hungry Again”). To avoid being caught, Tony must hide out, but after 20 years he returns to high school, pretending to be his son, to play the big game he never got to back then (once a jock, always a jock). For those who think Larry Cohen can do no wrong, this film is not to be missed. Others, tread lightly.
And then there are the teenage-zombie flicks. My particular favorite has long been 1993’s My Boyfriend’s Back (Amazon $3.99 rental/$14.99 purchase + Hulu Plus + iTunes $3.99 rental/$17.99 purchase + Google Play $2.99 rental/$7.99 purchase + YouTube $2.99 rental; quality: HD), produced by Sean S. Cunningham, written by Dean Lorey (who went on to Arrested Development), and directed by the great comic actor Bob Balaban, who is, I’m sad to learn, far from proud of his work on this film, calling it in a recent interview “a middle-of-the-road Hollywood product thing.” I beg to differ. Kicking off what I consider to be a top-of-the-line comedy (for the highest of lowbrow tastes), geeky teen protagonist Johnny Dingle (Andrew Lowery) announces in voiceover: “This day was the beginning of the end of my life.” And, yes, after a severely botched attempt to look like a hero in the eyes of Missy (Traci Lind), the girl he has forever lusted after, he gets shot by a masked robber at the deli where she works, but not before making his dying request that she go to the prom with him. When she says yes, he will do whatever it takes to make that a reality—decomposing body be damned!—much to the annoyance of Missy’s jock boyfriend (Matthew Fox) and his bullyish sidekick (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who nicknames Johnny “Dead Boy.” Seriously, just watch this one (and look fast for Matthew McConaughey while you’re at it)…
And finally, I had planned to include one of my early-Eighties faves Class of 1984, but aside from being perhaps a bit too well-known, it’s only available for streaming in crappy VHS quality on YouTube, so I decided to focus instead on director Mark L. Lester’s less-seen sci-fi follow-up of sorts, Class of 1999 (Amazon, $2.99 rental + Hulu Plus + iTunes + Google Play + Vudu + YouTube + Sony; quality: good). In Class of 1984 a new teacher is forced to go head-to-head with a group of vicious punks. Fifteen years later, those types of kids are the norm, with gangs taking over schools across the country. (This film is set in Seattle.) And in the name of “the future of education,” a trio of robot teachers (Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, and John P. Ryan, perfectly cast) are sent in by a mad doctor (Stacy Keach, ridiculous in white tailed-hair and super-fake-looking zombie-like eyes) to restore order. Needless to say, their wiring’s a bit off, and they turn out to be way more dangerous than their students. This movie kicked off the Nineties—but still has a whole lot of Eighties (Terminator included) going on.
Extra Credit Viewing – High School Beyond the USA:
The Beautiful Person (Netflix + iTunes + Sony) French teens are weird—at least in the world according to Christophe Honoré, a director whose sensibility you either get or you don’t (the latter applies for me). His students not only don’t look or act their age—and their gorgeous campus seems more college than high school (or perhaps I inadvertently broke my rule and included a private school?)—but they are also quite affected. But there’s plenty of (underplayed) drama to be had, involving student-teacher affairs, suicide, and, yes, a very beautiful person (still-it-girl Lea Seydoux), who upon transferring to her cousin’s school following her mother’s death, immediately draws much attention to her moody self. A rather futile movie—loosely based on La Princesse de Clèves—that’s undeniably pretty to look at.
Black Rat (Fandor) Kenta Fukasaku clearly hates teenagers. He had them face off in combat to the death in Hunger Games precursors Battle Royale (which he wrote) and Battle Royale II (which he co-wrote and co-directed). Here, following the apparent suicide of one girl, her classmates begin getting brutally knocked off in an apparent revenge scheme when they receive a text from the supposedly dead girl asking them to meet at school after hours… A brisk, entertaining, if generic, J-horror film—and, hey, its killer wears a big ugly plush rat mask.
Después de Lucía aka After Lucia (Netflix) The kids in Alejandra’s new Mexico City high school are some of the most repugnant ever seen on screen. They at first eagerly befriend her, but following an unfortunate event at a drunken party, they turn on her and make her life a living hell. All alone—teachers prove completely useless and Ale (a very good Tessa Ia) chooses not to turn to her dad, a heartbroken chef who recently lost his wife—she suffers quietly. That is until things get completely out of control and her dad must take matters into his own hands. Michel Franco’s devastating 2012 film, never released theatrically in the U.S., is a story of loss, in which the ones mourning aren’t given the proper space to do even that when faced with something much crueler.
Spirit of Jeet Kune Do aka Once Upon a Time in High School (Netflix) It’s 1978 in Seoul. Introvert Hyun-soo has transferred to a new all-boys school where teachers dispense discipline with their sticks as freely as they dish out verbal abuse. The students bond over Bruce Lee, whom they all adore, and dabble in martial arts themselves—which makes their goofing off more fun and their fights more interesting. Yet things don’t go so well for Hyun-soo, as he faces and eventually faces off with bullying fellow students and superiors alike, while at the same time falling for a girl who’s more into his best friend. Utterly defeated by movie’s end, he cries out: “Fuck all schools in Korea!”
Based on all these films, the same sentiment can safely be said about high schools everywhere. It’s a time in life that everyone at some point wishes they could do over—but not enough to actually endure going back. Watching movies about that period, however, remains forever addictive.