Monday, October 31, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Jock shock


And once again we welcome you, to our October Switcheroo
Where Brennan Klein deigns to review nice old sci-fi, like I would do.
But pretending to alliance, Brennan sends me 80s violence!
Cardboard Bloodbath, Census Science, demands psychic realignment.
Oh we have funrequisite links.  Here's hoping that not too much stinks.
Poetry blows, J. Slasherfan thinks. Give me TITS and DEATH, that's my kink!

Directed by Rospo Pallenberg
Written by Steve Slavkin

It's possible, of course, that the unprecedented dreadfulness of Return to Horror High simply battered my standards so hard that anything even remotely fun to watch would've felt like a salve afterwards, and hence the next and final slasher of this season, Cutting Class, indeed could be merely "remotely fun to watch," and not, as such, "actually good."  The weird thing here is that it's so similar to Return to Horror High you could confuse them: both are dumbshit late-stage slashersCutting Class being released direct-to-video during the death throes of the genre in 1989both are set in a high school, both feature a performer who would turn out to be an actual actor, and undoubtedly both were intended more as parodies than straight exemplars of the form, though it's also likely both were intended more as rental-market cash-grabs than they were intended as either comedies or slashers.

But if I'm to clarify this to myself, it is not the gauzy, low-budget, low-comedy construction of such things that makes them good or bad at what they do; if that were the case, Slumber Party Massacre II and Death Spa wouldn't be two of my favorites.  Maybe it's as simple as the fact that Cutting Class's Actual Actor, Brad Pitt, is legitimately in the movie, rather than Actual Actor George Clooney, who recites six lines and eats it in the first ten minutes of Horror High, or that the Actual Actor here essays an Actual Performance, at least graded on a VHS curve (in fact, it arguably has two Actual Actors in leading roles, though you might not necessarily judge Jill Schoelen as an Actual Actor based solely on this film; but it maybe even has three, if "Actual Actor" only means "guy you recognize" and you recognize Donovan Leitch from The Blob and I Shot Andy Warhol).  Those folks definitely help, in the sense that their Actual Actor powers are used for good even amidst their threadbare surroundings.  Still, that's probably not the whole story.  It's more that Cutting Class takes some genuinely wild swings, and is thus somewhat thrilling to watch even when it spins in a circle and falls down, whereas Horror High is more like somebody pathetically trying to keep your attention by pantomiming taking wild swings, but never committing.  I don't know, clarification might be impossible: it's just a vibe, man.  But maybe (even if this sounds like I'm repeating myself) it's really just the energy.  And Cutting Class has absolutely terrific energy.

Where precisely that energy comes, who can say, but if its director, Rospo Pallenberg, had any hand in shaping Steve Slavkin's screenplay, that's a potential clue; Pallenberg was a close associate of John Boorman, and sometimes his screenwriting partner, and if you want to talk about "taking wild swings without worrying what you look like or even what you hit," that's Boorman's career in a nutshell, Pallenberg having most recently co-written Excalibur with him, and while I don't want to flatly state "obviously, the commonalities there are profound," there's something of the same Boormaniac, "I think it's cool" recklessness in at least Pallenberg's execution of Slavkin's screenplay, and in the willingness to be endearingly dopey with a life-and-death subject matter, so that the sudden swerves into seriousness can be severe and jarring.  Alternatively, maybe I don't need to appeal to Pallenberg's links to a canonized filmmaker at all; Slavkin's career was just starting, but shortly after Cutting Class he created (and served as a primary writer on) the age-defining summer camp sitcom Salute Your Shortsand, indeed, that checks out, too.

That screenplay is actually a pretty wily thing, and while Slavkin's Nickolodeonesque, downright You Can't Do That On Television whimsy (appropriately sleazed-up for an R-rated film about older teens played by people in their mid-to-late 20s) is sometimes used more as a blind, and is often amusing in its silliness, it certainly gets in the way, too; but if I eventually have to start spoiling things to get at why Cutting Class works as well as it does, let's just say for the moment it's pervasively and weirdly subversive of its form, visually and narratively alike.

The plot this time might actually be simple enough to just recite; it's at least a possibility.  So: somewhere in pleasant suburban California lives star student Paula Carson (Schoelen), daughter of single dad and local district attorney Bill Carson (Martin Mull), who's on his way out the door for a week's vacation spent hunting mallards.  He reminds her, in his fatherly way, not to use the opportunity to get inseminated, and she seems to mean it when she promises she won't, even though her boyfriend is the otherworldly beautiful Dwight Ingalls (perhaps it would be redundant to say "played by a young Brad Pitt"), star of the school basketball team, unstudious dope, Mustang operator, daydrinker, and all-round fun dude.  A note of discord is introduced, however, when Pallenberg zooms in on a partial headline on a folded-up newspaper, which we eventually get to read in full; it seems a patricidal maniac teen has recently been released from the looney bin, and no points for guessing it's the new kid at school, Brian Woods (Leitch).  As things unfold, we'll learn that Brian, though a pariah due to the stigma of, you know, murder, has a major crush on Paula, and she's surprisingly receptive to his awkward approach; but perhaps just as importantly, until his certification and confinement Brian was close friends with Dwight, and there was more to Brian's father's death than Brian let on at the trial.  Things have already taken a dark turn by this point, since the instant D.A. Carson, who ran that trial, gets out to the woods, somebody uses him and Paula's bow and arrow for archery practice; and things will only get worse as more and more people around Paula and Dwight and Brian die.

It's unfortunate that not all of these kills are created equal: D.A. Carson is allowed to become a running joke because he doesn't die, and not even so gravely wounded he can't wander around the wilderness for days on end, and this running joke, the corniest in the film, is pretty dire despite being sold by another Actual Actor in Mull, and even if it finally winds up vital to a cute denouement.  Most of the rest of the comedy (and arguably most of the movie is comedy) is better, not necessarily good, but wacky and likeable and not complete dead air the way Mull's runner is; Roddy McDowall is onhand for the very best comic relief, probably just because it's my beloved Roddy McDowall (five Actual Actors!), playing against type in the most delightful way as a perverted principal who in some respects is the more-objectionable-but-still-funny 80s version of Dean Pelton, though instead of furry prostitutes and harassing Jeff Winger he prefers arranging opportunities for upskirt vistas with Paula.  The main thing, though, is that the film has this sort of off-kilter comic mood to it even when individual bits aren't necessarily working, and it has the intelligence to use its comedy to insist that you are in fact watching a hijinx-inflected murder mystery, McDowall's principal and other caricatures being offered up as semi-plausible red herrings, despite the killer's identity being so insultingly obvious.  Or so it would seem, because this is the real sleight of hand.

I was speaking of the kills: learning that this was a direct-to-video slasher makes me even more disappointed in their general gorelessness, but like the movie itself they get better as they go along.  In several instances they even rise to the level of conceptual genius even if nobody was interested in splatter, particularly the genuinely unnerving tonal shift from some lightweight sex comedy involving consensual foreplay from under the bleachers at a basketball game to the violent murder of that couple under the same bleachers, while a thousand other kids drown out their screams with cheers.  There is also a really creative employment of a trampoline that I bet you haven't seen before.

I have not necessarily described a good movie yet.  I said there was a subversive impulse coursing through it, and that's down to two big things.  The most obvious, in that you notice it immediately and won't stop noticing it, is that, between the two of them, Pallenberg and Slavkin have elected to set their slasher film almost exclusively during daylight hours.  I can't imagine any other proper slasher film has ever used so much sunlight, nor even an improper slashershit, Predator still has nighttime scenes, but Cutting Class very nearly doesn't.  When it does, it's almost uniformly in extremely well-lit interiors: that basketball game, Paula's house with every lamp in the place turned on, and when we do go outside her house, I believe I recall that the sun hasn't fully set yet.  This slasher movie starts its murder spree in a woodland glade at 7 a.m.; its conclusive Final Person chase occurs at about 4 p.m in a building with literally hundreds of windows.  Even the "it's not over yet!" stinger occurs at maybe five, and it's, like, August.  And this is an 80s teen comedy set and shot in California, remember, so when I say "daylight" I mean that Avraham Karpick's photography is so bright and poppy and prettily flat that you might want to actually get up and dance, for it's no kin at all to the dim post-apocalyptic "daylight" that so many modern cinematographers pretend makes their movies art.  There may be only one set that even has what you'd really describe as a "lighting set-up," the copy room where Vice Principal Knocht (Nancy Fish) has her murder recorded for publication courtesy the Xerox Corporation.

It can, however, still be scaryin the way one permits oneself to be scared by a goofy-ass late-stage slasher movie, perhaps, but it's such a bizarre visual scheme that it gives the film a charge of actual wrongness, and presenting the violence during school hours and in shafts of sunlight or in those neglected lonely corners and hiding-places we all found back when we were still in high school gives it the frisson of legitimate horror, even when it's not the bloodiest movie by any stretch, and frequently quite stupid.  (Its stupidity is its bane: I would be even better disposed to it if one of the more imaginative bits, involving the killer smugly inviting his victims to solve a math problem to save their lives, presented a math problem that actually was solvable, rather than asking the classic "two trains leave Chicago and Boston" exam question without providing the fucking speed of either one.  Yeah, yeah, but it sticks in the craw.)

But it is a visual scheme, evolving over the film, so that the Final Person sequence, afternoon or not, is allowed to have a distinctive and threatening cast put over it anyway; it's not big sheets of black here, but the hazy shadows of late afternoon with the sun low in the sky on the other side of a building, that kind of bland institutional grimness that settles into an empty school building, and after an hour of bright-as-fuck everything, the desaturation and messy blocks of fuzzy gray that mar our leads' faces hits way harder than it ought.  (It also has a, uh, duel of circular saws in the automotive class.  I don't know what to tell you, but this is what I personally needed in that moment.)

The second thing it does is maybe less genre-busting but probably more surprising (I'm sure it's possible to write off "this slasher movie is so bright" as an accident or ineptitude, though while it was probably cheaper, to my mind there's no chance it's not deliberate).  In any case, the narrative inversion it takes on really just got me.  I noted that it's a murder mystery that points unerringly in one direction only (I've already told you it has a circular saw duel, so you know whether you want to watch it, and while this is where WE START TO SPOIL THINGS PRETTY BADLY, nobody's making you peek).

So: if you're familiar with basically any narrative form (probably not even "besides slashers"), and from basically any period but probably especially the 1980s, the direction you understand it's pointing in is towards Dwight, the popular jock jerk portrayed by the hunkiest blond man on Earth, and away from Brian, the misunderstood loser who dresses like a British synth player, because that's what almost literally every story regarding adolescents in that decade is about, an underdog or underdogs being oppressed by asshole cool kids with blond hair that drive Mustangs and who will, without a doubt, eventually get laid, assuming they haven't gotten laid two hundred times already.

The exceptions are few (Heathers, for example, damns basically everybody), but there are not very many like this where "actually, that Judd Nelsony loner? you were right, he's genuinely a Goddamn monster," and probably fewer still where a slasher structure nearly dispenses with a Final Girl in favor of a Final Best Male Friend.  It is basically just this and Christine, and if Christine is a whole lot meatier in its examination of masculine relationships, that's because Christine is a masterpiece; but it is, and this is enough, honestly startling to find that for all the movie's been throwing British ephebophiles and deranged janitors (Robert Glaudini) at you, whom you thought were just lazy distractions from the "obvious" killer, these were always canny feints to keep you from noticing that the so-obvious-he-can't-be-the-killer was the killer, running a very elaborate frame-up on his ex-best bud.  It recontextualizes Pitt's performance, and more than recontextualizes: it's very possible this slasher's dramatic scenes were shot in script order, because that performance absolutely gets better across the span of the film, to the point that by the end there's, like, genuine inner life in Dwight.  I certainly don't want to say something silly like "Jesus, it might be Pitt's best performance until Movie X," but it did occur to me to ask the question if it was Pitt's best performance until 1994's Interview With the Vampire (low bars, but it's trivially better than his one-dimensional Thelma and Louise cameo or his confused un-performance in Cool World), and it's actually about the same performance as in Seven, but in full earnestness more layered and vulnerable.

Pallenberg and Slavkin privilege this, partly as another part of the strategy to convince you Dwight's the killer, but in retrospect it's a much more ordinary unravelling, the result of his guilt that he was (not-quite-culpably) party to a murder, so that his jock jerkiness becomes sympathetic and motivatedhis borderline alcoholism, his (ahem) cutting class, even his sexual pushiness with Paula becomes, and I swear I'm not making this up, soulful, in Pitt's performance more of a desperate attempt to not have to spend the night alone with his thoughts.

But then, it's also still the comedy it always was, the horror-thriller aspect and the comedy combining in some pretty neat ways for the long finale through the halls of the school, and while Pallenberg is very obviously not a natural talent at constructing tense action sequences, he's not awful at it (using the P.A. system to make the killer omnipresent is, for example, a very nice touch), and Slavkin has him more-or-less covered, math problems aside, including a truly wonderful joke set up all the way back in the first act with a big hunk of (explosive) sodium in the chemistry lab, and the bleak laugh-out-loud actual punchline (a joke! with a punchline!) is even better.  It's at this point that I really need to stop, not only because this is abominably long, but if I keep going I'm going to talk myself into calling this idiotic thing "great."  Man, I mean, if I were to start discussing real-deal composer Jill Fraser's electronic-and-lounge-rock score and what amounts to a soundtrack by Wall of Voodoo, there is every chance I would.

Killer: Brian
Final Girl: Dwight
Best Kill: Coach Harris (Dirk Blocker) kills a few minutes on the trampoline waiting for Dwight, and Blocker's large body bouncing up and down is sort of hypnotically and uniquely beautiful in a shaft of sunlight up until the point somebody puts an American flag under him and... well, there you are
Sign of the Times: Though a jerk jock unhappy with his girlfriend, Brad Pitt manages not to dump beer on her head, or slap her children; if that's too political, I direct you to the button up striped shirt Pitt's wearing underneath a rugby shirt, Jesus Christ, that's like a one-outfit summing-up of his character, is this movie actually like a 9/10?
Scariest Moment: When Paula's friend Colleen (Brenda James) and her boyfriend Gary (Mark Barnet) are murdered under the bleachers during a basketball game, the whole school a potential witness, and not a one of them noticing the horror happening right under their butts
Weirdest Moment: Paula working as an artist's model (in a swimsuit, but still) in an art class is probably a bridge too far even for a goofy 80s high school sex comedy, and then they take it further when the teacher spots Brian and mooshes the two kids together, and they have a moment, thereby unwittingly kickstarting Brian's attempt to take over Dwight's life
Champion Dialogue: "You know, your father's a lot bigger than I am, but I'm bigger where it really counts."
Body Count: 7
1a. D.A. Carson is shot with an arrow, but survives, more's the pity
1. Mr. Conklin (Robert Machray) is incinerated in a.... walk-in kiln? (I'll allow it)
2. Gary has his throat slit and
3. Colleen soon joins him in death
4. Mrs. Knocht is smashed into a photocopier till she expires
5. Coach Harris is impaled on his trampoline
6. Mr. Glynn, the math teacher (Eric Boles), figures out an impossible math problem, but forgot to account for time zones and gets the axe for his failure
7. Paula lodges a hammer in Dwight's skull and he falls into a bandsaw
TL;DR: Surprisingly decent at the last things you'd expect it to be (murder mystery, character study) and possessed of an uncanny daylight look, it's easy to forgive this slasher comedy the flaws of sometimes being annoyingly unserious and not as bloody as you'd prefer.

Score: 7/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)
2022: Hell Night (1981) Return to Horror High (1987) Cutting Class (1989)


  1. If you're interested in talking yourself completely over the ledge into loving this movie, I wouldn't be terribly upset. It really is a peculiar beast, especially coming in the year that practically nothing went right for the slasher film, and I'm glad you were able to get on its wavelength even MORE than me.

    1. Going back to your take on it, I think the difference is you didn't get outsmarted by the movie, and were pretty laser-focused on what it was *actually* doing. (The slightly face-saving way to put it maybe is that I outsmarted myself?)

      I wonder if Salute Your Shorts is on Paramount+ or wherever