Cutting Class (1989) *
Most people wouldn’t look twice at Cutting Class were they to find it staring up at them from the shelves in the horror section of their local video store. With its unimaginative cover art, its even more unimaginative title, and its highly inauspicious (for a slasher movie) late-80’s release date, Cutting Class would seem to have little or nothing going for it— and indeed it is a pretty grim way to spend an hour and a half. But for a serious cinemasochist, the bruises it will leave on your psyche are well worth it, for it is difficult to find a more concentrated jolt of big-name embarrassment in any movie released since the 1970’s, when every second-tier star in Hollywood went mad simultaneously, and started banding together under the directorship of Irwin Allen. I ask you— where else are you going to see both Roddy McDowall and Martin Mull wiping their asses with whatever remained of their good names in an uncommonly miserable slasher flick, and at the same time gape in astonishment at the most shameful of all the skeletons in Brad Pitt’s closet? How many other boils on the bum of the silver screen can claim to heap so much ignominy on an up-and-comer, a down-and-goer, and an actor who was at least notionally at the top of his game, all in one go?
Let’s start with Martin Mull. He plays District Attorney William Carson, and when we first see him, he’s poking his daughter, Paula (Jill Schoelen, from Curse II: The Bite and the Robert Englund version of The Phantom of the Opera), in the armpit with the business end of a shotgun while she sneaks out half-naked onto the front driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper. Two actions that no thinking person would ever commit, from two different characters, in the very first scene— if that doesn’t just scream, “Quality!” then I don’t know what does. The reason Carson has the shotgun is that he’s on his way to the countryside for an extended camping/hunting trip; by most accounts, only nitwits do a thing like that all by their lonesome, but as we shall see, Cutting Class is up to its eyeballs in nitwits, and we’ll soon have much dumber things to occupy our attention. Before leaving, Carson admonishes Paula to do her homework (actually, he tells her “to attack it with a vengeance”), to have no boys in the house while he’s gone, and, most importantly, not to cut class. Really this is just a convenient excuse to wedge the movie’s title into a line of dialogue. Anyway, no sooner has Carson waded out into the marshes to discharge his firearm ineffectually in the general direction of airborne ducks than somebody whose aim is a hell of a lot better than his calls his name, and fires an arrow into his chest. Now you may be tempted at this point to think, “Wow. Martin Mull must have cost a fuck of a lot if they could only afford to hire him for two scenes,” but Cutting Class hasn’t finished with him yet. Carson will spend the rest of the movie limping, crawling, and staggering toward home in what might perhaps be described as a uniquely minimalist interpretation of odious comic relief. (In other words, not only is it nothing like funny, I honestly can’t tell for certain whether it was even intended to be.)
Turning our attention now to Brad Pitt, he plays Dwight Ingalls, boyfriend of Paula Carson, star of his high school’s notoriously lousy basketball team, and easily the biggest asshole in the entire town. It’s completely beyond me what Paula sees in this spoiled, lazy, petulant, possessive, violent shit-stain of a teenager, but given her own behavior over the next 80-odd minutes, one might plausibly argue that she basically deserves him. As stereotype requires of the daughter of a wealthy prosecuting attorney, Paula’s good-girl façade conceals shallowness, self-involvement, materialism, and manipulative tendencies fit to drop the jaws of anybody who doesn’t clearly remember high school. Naturally, she’s the one we’re supposed to like around here. Nor is her coupling with Dwight the only example of utterly incomprehensible attraction on display, for Paula has a second suitor playing Duckie to Dwight’s Blaine. This is Brian Woods (The Blob’s Donovan Leitch), a former friend of Dwight’s who has spent the last several years in a mental hospital for cutting the brake lines in his dad’s car, precipitating a fatal accident. Brian considers himself cured, and he has the hospital staff to back him up on that, but he is nevertheless a pariah both in school and in the town at large, and Dwight orders him to steer clear of Paula, under implied threat of violence.
So just how big a cock is Dwight, and just how much does Paula encourage his behavior while pretending to condemn it? Well how about this… One night, while Paula is home studying, Dwight comes over with their friends, Gary (Mark Barnet) and Colleen (Brenda Lynne Klemme, later of Slither), and a plan for some advanced mischief. Paula, you see, works part-time as an assistant to the loony and lecherous Principal Dante (McDowall, whose performance here will have anyone who remembers him in Fright Night or Planet of the Apes hanging their heads in sympathetic shame), and consequently she has custody of the key to the filing cabinet wherein the sacred Permanent Records are stored. Dwight and the others want Paula to give them the key so that they can break into the school and peruse Brian’s file. Despite a great show of resistance, all it takes for Paula to cave in is for Dwight to give her his family heirloom signet ring, which she has always coveted. The kids smash one of the windows in the boys’ locker room, sneak past Schultz— the visibly insane, pot-smoking, Sinister Rat-Faced Janitor (Robert Glaudini, of Parasite and The Alchemist)— and help themselves to the files. In doing so, they learn that Brian had been diagnosed with “violent schizophrenia,” and that his treatment regimen at the hospital included daily rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. The secrecy with which our heroes engage in their espionage is less complete than they imagine, though. Somehow, they fail to notice Brian himself spying on them from behind the water cooler in the office.
Meanwhile, deaths have begun occurring at the school itself. After hours on the same day that Paula’s art teacher gave Brian shit about sneaking into his class to watch the girl model (an arrangement which had already provoked a fit of jealous fury from Dwight in and of itself), somebody locks the teacher in his ceramics kiln, and burns him to death. At the basketball game which costs Dwight his shot at a sports scholarship, someone murders both Gary and Colleen after they sneak down beneath the stands to make out. (Considering that Colleen had just recently made a point of performing her cheerleading routine sans panties, one wonders why they felt any need for the privacy provided by the bleachers overhead…) Eventually, math teacher Mr. Glynn (Eric Boles, from C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. and Dr. Death: Stealer of Souls) sends both Brian and Dwight to the office to get chewed out by Vice Principal Knocht (Nancy Fisk, of Dr. Giggles and Exorcist III) over their continuing disruptive behavior. Just minutes after both boys leave her presence, somebody comes back in and kills Knocht by… Well, honestly, I don’t know how Mrs. Knocht is supposed to have died, because I can’t think of anything you could do to somebody by holding their face down against a copy machine’s document glass which would kill them while generating that much blood, yet leave the machine itself intact. In any case, Dwight finds the body a bit later, and immediately fingers Brian as the killer. While the police set out on a manhunt (failing to rescue William Carson while they’re at it, despite the fact that one of their bloodhounds goes straight to him), Brian seeks out Paula in an attempt to convince her that he’s innocent. Luckily for Brian, Dwight picks the same time to have some sort of mental meltdown, picking a fight with Coach Harris (Dirk Blocker, from Poltergeist and Prince of Darkness)— whom somebody runs through with an American flag in a most Friday the 13th-like manner immediately thereafter— and calling Paula on the phone to rant and babble incoherently. Because we’ve already seen evidence by this point to suggest that Brian and Dwight had both been under the late Mr. Woods’s car on the day when its brakes were sabotaged, and because each of the teachers killed so far had done something to get on both boys’ bad sides, we’re obviously supposed to believe now that Dwight is the killer, turning it into a shocking revelation later on when Brian appears from behind a door to bury an axe in Mr. Glynn’s face. It really isn’t a shock though, and the reason why is the number-one factor in making Cutting Class such a lousy, lousy film.
All throughout its running time, Cutting Class is careful to give both Brian and Dwight equal cause to hate most of the people who eventually turn up dead, while simultaneously serving up the expected obvious red herrings in the form of Schultz the janitor and Principal Dante. Unfortunately, however, only one member of the cast ever seems actually capable of hating someone enough to kill them, and that’s Brian. Not only that, he’s the only character who has any reason at all to want Gary, Colleen, or William Carson dead. None of them ever did anything to Dwight, but Gary and Colleen were in on the file-snooping expedition, while Carson turns out to have been the one who put Brian in that mental hospital in the first place. In fact, the only reason in the world to suspect Brian of not being the killer is that it is a longstanding convention of the slasher movie that the character who initially seems to have the strongest motive and the best opportunities for murder is almost always innocent. We doubt Brian’s guilt only because Cutting Class has adhered to every other cliché in the book, so why not that one, too?
And while we’re on the subject of the Book of Cliché, this seems like a good time to point out that Cutting Class doesn’t merely rely on clichés, but indeed raises most of those it employs to new heights. For example, if one of your pet peeves with slasher movies is the puzzling lack of concern displayed by most of their characters when their friends begin to vanish mysteriously, then Cutting Class will likely make you mad enough to look up the addresses of director Rospo Pallenberg and screenwriter Steve Slavkin so that you can do a little slashing yourself. Nobody says a word about the disappearance of a teacher and two students until days after the fact, and when Paula finally raises the subject, she does so only in passing, exhibiting no trace of worry even though one of the missing is supposedly her best friend. Beyond that, we see Schultz on two separate occasions cleaning up a mess left by the killer (the charred remains of the art teacher in one instance, and a huge pool of Gary and Colleen’s blood in the other), but he evidently never mentions these unorthodox custodial undertakings to anybody. The final affront on this score is that when Paula eventually discovers the bodies of her friends, we learn that they’ve been left to putrefy in a cabinet in one of the classrooms, and not one person has noticed the unendurable stench that must surely be emanating from said cupboard in most of a week!!!!
In the end, though, the truly unforgivable offense of Cutting Class is its meek abdication of its responsibilities as an exploitation horror movie. Cutting Class is frequently described as a spoof in reviews, but I don’t buy that for a second. There are jokes in this film, but they are of an extraordinary feeble sort, and are no more central to the proceedings than the only slightly less contemptible humor in Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives. If anything, I’m inclined to suspect that such features as William Carson’s ostensibly amusing struggles to return home and the deathtrap built around the infamous “two trains” algebra problem in the final act were the product of last-minute rewrites precipitated by a realization on the part of the producers that this movie was shaping up to be an abject failure as straight horror. It isn’t simply that there’s nothing scary or suspenseful about the film— only the most delusionally optimistic could still expect honest suspense from a slasher movie in 1989. But Cutting Class also has nothing whatsoever to offer in the way of gore, while its sexual content manages the difficult feat of being drearily tame and off-puttingly sleazy at the same time. I have no idea how a film which could justifiably have been subtitled The Upskirt Movie could nevertheless inspire more yawns than erections, but Cutting Class pulls it off. Not scary, not funny, not sexy, not gross… What does that leave? Were it not for this movie’s Schadenfreude value as a notable low for Roddy McDowall, Martin Mull, and Brad Pitt, it would indeed be totally worthless.