Welcome to Back to the ’80s. This recurring feature aims to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from horror’s most beloved decade. Regardless of which category a particular film falls under, this segment will spotlight films that horror fans can appreciate for one reason or another. We will look at how some of these flicks have stood the test of time and others have not aged quite so well. Regardless of what they look like today, these efforts from the 1980s laid the groundwork for the horror genre as we know it today.
Cutting Class is a 1989 horror-mystery film containing elements of dark comedy and satire. This picture has not exactly stood the test of time. The lead performances are OK but they are lost within a film that never finds it footing. Draped in primary colors to hint that the audience is watching kids from an All-American high school, Cutting Class is lacking in a necessary foundation to root all the elements together.
The movie begins with Paula (Jill Schoelen) being left alone as her father (Martin Mull) leaves for a hunting trip. She is trying to study with constant distractions from her boyfriend, Dwight (Brad Pitt). Thrown into the mix is Brian (Donovan Leitch). Brian was friends with Dwight until he was locked away in a mental institution for killing his father and has only recently returned. As the bodies of teachers and students start piling up, Brian becomes the main suspect. Paula becomes torn between an irrational Dwight and her sympathy for an unstable Brian. Roddy McDowall lingers in the background in one of his creepier roles as the principal, who is obsessed with Paula.
This film is designed to appeal to the helplessness of adolescent youth. Teenagers are primarily at the mercy of the adults surrounding them. Cutting Class allows the kids to take back the control as the adults are mainly attacked. The film was marketed to the MTV generation. That would be a smart move considering that the largest demographic to watch a horror movie, especially at this time, would be a teenager. There is a solid 80’s soundtrack and popping visuals. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers decided to condescend to their younger audience. As time has proven before and since, the teenage horror audience is perfectly willing to accept and enjoy films that speak to their intelligence.
This movie assumes that the audience just wants peek-a-boo nudity and a series of scenes to set up “creative” kills. One attack being with the pointy end of an American Flag while someone bounces on a trampoline, the result looking pathetically fake. Most of the time, Paula is treated as a sexual object. The principal leads her into his office under the guise of receiving new uniforms only to reveal that his intention was really to catch a peek up her skirt. Paula’s friend decides the only way to get cheers is to not wear underwear under her uniform. Brian enters Paula’s bathroom as she is topless. The bulk of the scene is spent with Paula looking terrified as she covers her breasts. At a certain point the scene becomes less about her being vulnerable and more about Paula being an object for the male gaze.
Released at the end of the decade, Cutting Class is a product of all the 1980s horror that came before it. That includes the good, as well as the bad. The failure occurs because of all the missed opportunities. There is a decent premise available and a cast that knows how to act. The problem is that the film relies too much on situations of chance for the killer to be successful. One or two moments in favor of the bad guy are acceptable. But the filmmakers expect the audience to believe the killer is aware of how several different characters will react in any given situation. They are to also accept that he or she will know where a character is at any random time. For the boogeyman, Michael Myers, or a supernatural entity like Freddy Kruger that can work. However, the killer in this film is neither of those things.
Being that nobody in this film is supernatural, it is worth noting the problematic element of time frame in this picture. There are several instances when a character manages to be in two places at the same time. There is a scene in which a group of characters need a car to get to the school quickly. A classmate is watching them as they leave and somehow manages to arrive only seconds after them without a car. There is also the issue of illogical motives. The last prank at the end makes virtually no sense. A person is being set up for a “future kill” when an attempt on their life is made in the climax. One has to wonder if the killer was assuming he or she would fail. For why try to “kill them in the future” if they were planning on killing them in the present?
The film attempts to become a satire of the horror genre. Yet this feat is never quite successfully accomplished. It falls short of being campy enough and it never truly make a statement. Ultimately, the film becomes discarded as another run of the mill slasher. A movie such as Scream released less than a decade later manages to maintain that it is self-aware, whereas Cutting Class appears to be trying to fit in. One has to scratch the surface to realize there is some dark comedy and satire occurring. The adults in the film seem to be in on the joke (such as Martin Mull’s everlasting attempts to escape the swamp). But there are too many plot holes in the rest of the film to make the jokes seem anything but intentional.
I was a teenager, myself, the first time that I saw Cutting Class. I remember thinking, as it unfolded, that this movie was a substandard Scream for the 1980s. There are elements of dark comedy. There is a serial killer chasing a girl realizing the sins of her parent’s past. The suspects mainly being her boyfriend and his slightly odd friend. Watching it as an adult, I realize that the two films are far from being anything alike.
The filmmakers should have stepped back to realize that a few plot points did not make sense and needed to be rearranged. Then Cutting Class could have been a much stronger effort. With a plot that made more sense, this picture had the potential to be one of the first postmodern satirical looks at the horror genre. All the elements were there but they just never came together cohesively. If you are looking for a movie that represents many of the stereotypical problems of 1980s horror films then Cutting Class is a good choice. The movie does have some unintentional humor and mild suspense. If what you seek is something well-crafted and logical then you might want to play hooky from watching this one.