Farkakte Film Flashback: High School Hell Edition

Written by Farkakte Film Flashback, Film

With Jennifer’s Body arriving in theaters this weekend, Pete Chianca’s thoughts have turned to all the wonderful ways high school can be horrible — particularly in the movies.

Jennifer's BodyJennifer’s Body, the first script of Diablo Cody’s to be produced since she won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2007’s Juno, opens today. It’s about a cheerleader played by Megan Fox who’s possessed by demons from hell and wreaks bloody carnage upon her male classmates. In other words, it’s about high school.

Of course there’s no shortage of movies that portray high school as a kind of hell on earth, both literally (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and figuratively (Election, Heathers, every movie to ever star Ally Sheedy). But in honor of Jennifer’s Body, I thought I’d re-enroll in a few other, more random cinematic high schools, if only to remind myself how happy I am to have left the real thing behind all those years ago.

Which reminds me — if I ever see the inside of a locker again, it’ll be too soon.

My Bodyguard (1980): Pre-adolescence is a very impressionable time for a young moviegoer. For some reason, two movies stand out from that period of my life. One is 1979’s Meatballs, which introduced me to “It just doesn’t matter!,” a mantra I probably leaned on a little too often in subsequent years. The other is My Bodyguard.

The Chicago high school that Clifford (Chris Makepeace) attends in that film is pretty tough, in that all it takes to get you roughed up by Matt Dillon’s Mike Moody and his cronies is to show up at school in a hotel limo. And having Ruth Gordon as your grandma back at home — or at least at the hotel where you live — only helps so much.

Fortunately for Clifford, he has Randy, the loner who may or may not have killed his own brother. Randy’s played by Adam Baldwin, who isn’t related to all those other Baldwins, which is a huge advantage in this particular role. Seems to me Clifford and Randy have one of the great movie friendships, and I’d go so far as to place the scene where Moody gets his as one of the top-five movie comeuppances. At least among those not involving an automatic weapon.

It’s worth noting that director Tony Bill also coproduced The Sting, which featured another great cinematic friendship but didn’t showcase Joan Cusack sporting the biggest hair of her career. So I’ll take this one.

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Rebel Without a Cause (1955): This is a classic, yes, but it’s also a movie that’s got some serious issues. For one thing, our collective unconscious won’t allow us to admit that James Dean is kind of whiny. Also, I have a hard time getting past the idea that he could, in any universe, have been sired by Jim Backus. And the scene where Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo hole up in an abandoned house and pretend to be a family is — let’s face it — creepy. And not in a good way.

That said, you can see why Dean became such a sensation. While most of the rest of the cast come off like they’re in, well, a 1950s movie, Dean seems to have stepped into the frame from another, much cooler planet. His angst is so palpable you can imagine it floating into another theater and turning Mickey Rooney into a big pile of beige Jell-O.

Nicholas Ray’s direction and, even more so, Ernest Haller’s cinematography (he shot Gone With the Wind) add to the effect. Maybe it’s because it’s the rare surviving image of Dean that isn’t iconic, but today it seems every shot in Rebel is framed to portray him as an indelible symbol of troubled youth. With excellent taste in jackets.

As for the film’s Dawson High, any school where they make the new kid play chicken with stolen cars going over the side of a cliff has got to be hard-core. And if you don’t think that’s a tough scene (that darn sleeve strap!), check out the watered-down version it inspired for 1984’s Footloose — with tractors! That’s another movie about high school hell, but mostly it’s the audience who suffers.

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Class of Nuke ’Em High (1986): OK, I’ll admit it — I never got the whole Troma thing. I think the idea was that their films were so bad — the acting, the special effects, the “writing” — they were good. Except they weren’t good. They just gave stupid, gratuitous sex and violence a bad name, which isn’t easy to do. (So why did I watch them? Hey, I was 16 once too.)

Case in point is Class of Nuke ’Em High, about a high school next to a nuclear plant. This is the movie where kids take radiated drugs, and after they have sex the girl gets pregnant with a nuclear mutant she vomits up in the school bathroom.

Right. That movie.

So the baby of course grows into a horrible creature that goes around putting its claws through students’ heads, but only in the school basement. I suspect this is because the prop guy didn’t have the money to put legs on it, making it difficult for the creature to climb stairs.

Class of Nuke ‘Em High does fit my description of high school hell, however. If my high school were populated by this many untalented 30-year-olds pretending to be stereotypical teenage punks, nerds, and jocks, I think I would’ve welcomed a claw through the head myself.

Full disclosure: I’ve posted a clip, but I wouldn’t recommend that you actually, you know, watch it. Consider yourself warned.

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The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947): I’m a sucker for a good Cary Grant movie. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. It is, however, sort of delightfully creepy, this time in a good way.

Bachelor has America’s 1930s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, in her one and only significant teenage role, as a girl who’s sort of a younger, much more chipper version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. She sets her sights on Grant’s playboy artist, at one point sneaking into his apartment, where he’s caught in his bathrobe with her and is immediately arrested. This shows how times have changed — these days he’d be re-elected to Congress.

His punishment is worthy of Jerry and George’s sitcom-within-a-sitcom on Seinfeld: he’s sentenced to “date” Temple until she gets over the crush, which turns out to be just long enough for him to fall for her older sister, a judge — a judge! — played by Myrna Loy, who’s much more sober here, both literally and figuratively, than in the Thin Man movies.

I realize that’s a lot of plot, but it’s basically all the movie’s got other than watching Grant’s reactions to high school life as he tries to stave off Temple’s (admittedly chaste) advances. His body language is so entertaining you could enjoy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer with the sound off, but don’t — some of the dialogue is actually pretty snappy. In fact, it won an Oscar for screenwriter Sidney Sheldon, who would go on to write plenty of other, much creepier romances (like The Other Side of Midnight, Rage of Angels).

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Over the Edge (1979): I’ll admit to a certain bias when it comes to this movie, as it stars a distant cousin of mine, Michael Eric Kramer, as good kid gone bad Carl Willat. It was his film debut, and we all assumed it would turn him into a teenage icon. But we must’ve been thinking of Matt Dillon (yes, him again), who’s actually second banana in Over the Edge but whose picture was later moved to the front of the DVD box for obvious reasons.

Anyway, the person who uploaded the movie to YouTube calls Over the Edge “the most realistic teenage movie ever made,” and if that’s true, we’re in even more trouble than we think. But if you were even halfways paying attention in the late ’70s, you know that the kids in this movie do in fact dress, talk, and act like real teenagers — unlike the adults, who mostly just yell. And if it seems a little far-fetched that they’d all take so readily to the Lord of the Flies carnage that ends the film, that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. (The two little girls telling their parents to go to hell over the PA system — after the teens have locked the grownups in the school cafeteria, natch — are still wigging me out at this very moment.)

What makes this movie stand out to me, in addition to the killer soundtrack, is director Jonathan Kaplan’s relentlessly downbeat worldview (he’d go on to direct 1988’s The Accused, another feel-good hit) and its frankly twisted ending, where the “heroes” are carted off to juvie as their friends cheer them on from a highway overpass, eager to follow in their footsteps.

Also, no tractors.

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(Dis)honorable mention: high school musicals. I’ve sat through all three High School Musical movies. I’ve listened to their soundtracks. I’ve tacked a poster up to the wall of my daughter’s room on which the smiling, plastic cast appear to be exploding out toward me, like Disney napalm. I want to say here and now that high schools and musicals don’t mix (Grease notwithstanding), and that a little Jennifer’s Body-style bloody carnage would serve Zac Efron et al. quite well.

Where are the Troma people when you need them?

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