Going back to school could always be worse.
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 looks 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.
Class of 1999 (1990)
School: Kennedy High
If Class of 1984 is the angry blue-collar cry for Reagan era cultural identity, then Class of 1999 is the nightmare of a society living with the ramifications of that choice.
But 1999 is also a low rent action/horror that was always destined to be discovered on the shelves of Blockbuster, leeching off the success of The Terminator. Which, in a pre-Terminator 2 age isn’t surprising because hello! Why wouldn’t you try and capitalize off of James Cameron’s monolithic success before they established the record-smashing sequel?
Except rather than getting one Arnold Schwarzenegger, we get the indomitable Pam Grier, John P. Ryan (It’s Alive), and Patrick Kilpatrick (The Toxic Avenger) devouring the scenery with fiendish glee. You can’t help but smile at Ryan’s steely blue gaze and toothy grin as his human hand falls off to reveal a twisted iron claw underneath or when he’s aggressively spanking student gangs in his class, which trust me is as far from erotic as it sounds. It’s these lightning in a bottle moments that make you nostalgic for the indelible golden years of cinema transitioning out of one decade and into the next.
School: Crunchem Hall
Unlike most kids on this list, Matilda actually wants to go to school. And who could blame her with parents like the garish Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman who couldn’t care less about their new bundle of joy, played remarkably by Mara Wilson. Wilson captures the perfect blend of sad ennui with the exuberance of childhood, more than enough needed to carry this surprisingly complex tale of perseverance and revenge.
But if you thought your school had government funding issues, you clearly haven’t seen Matilda’s introduction to academia: Crunchem Hall, presided over by the sadistic principal Miss Trunchbull. Outside of the cold stone walls and dilapidated interiors that harkens scenery straight from a Charles Dickens novel, it’s Trunchbull with her unique track-and-field inspired ways of doling out punishment to the students that make the school a nightmare. But even a ferocious hammer throw is nothing a little bit of latent telekinetic powers can’t handle!
School: Grizzly Lake High
Sometimes you just want to get through school without getting noticed, recognizing that this is just one stop on many journeys in life. But it’s practically impossible to go unnoticed at Grizzly Lake High where the students have to deal with masked slashers, aliens, and time traveling bears just to name a few.
Joseph Kahn’s Detention is aggressive in its style, which was overwhelming for most audiences on release. But it’s arguable that it’s precisely because of the sensorial boundaries that are pushed that the bonkers plot is not only elevated but actually finds narrative cohesion in the seemingly endless topping of style and substance from scene to scene. We see your hyperkinetic editing and raise you surprise time travel in a slasher movie! Highly stylized lighting and practical effects? Well then, how about a character who is part fly?! And while it may sound exhausting, you barely have a chance to think about catching your breath as you barrel towards the whirlwind finale.
Disturbing Behavior (1998)
School: Cradle Bay High
Cradle Bay, at first glance, is just like any other school. You have the jocks, the band nerds, the skaters but Cradle Bay High likes to add a little dash of new world order thrown in to spice things up! The Clark family, featuring a slightly too old James Marsden and a young Katherine Isabelle, move from Chicago to turn over a new leaf in Cradle Bay, attempting to escape the tragic memory of their brother’s suicide (Ethan Embry in a tiny cameo).
But while some schools have FCA or the Honor Roll, Cradle Bay has the Blue Ribbon Club: a cultish group of brainwashed students who want to be all they can be. The only side effect is vanilla tastes, uncontrollable horniness, and murderous rage. So, not too different than any normal teenager!
Disturbing Behavior is a slice of that late 90s middle finger to the system high school hysterics we just don’t really get anymore. The story is fast, if not exactly fresh, and has enough light sex and bloodletting to bring the teens in droves and leave nostalgic adults smiling. Come for Katie Holmes brooding angst, stay for William Sadler’s regionless accent and on the nose Pink Floyd references!
The Faculty (1998)
School: Herrington High School
A common misconception in schools is that teachers don’t understand their students; they can’t relate to them due to age or culture gaps. But the question that far few schools have ever asked is simple: maybe the teachers aren’t humans after all? Maybe they are just a race of thirsty AF aliens who are on a world tour body snatching anyone who gets in their way, from future The Daily Show host Jon Stewart to everyone’s favorite Jean Grey: Famke Janssen!
Directed by Robert Rodriguez with a script from Kevin Williamson, fresh off the success of the double slasher whammy of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty is late 90s teen horror at its finest. It has enough allusions to past sci-fi and horror films to keep diehard genre fans appeased, while also having a smart young cast of future superstars like Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and Clea Duvall. Oh did I forget to mention this is the film debut of R&B singer Usher? YEAH! What more could you want in 90s high school horror?!