Ah... to be trapped in a decades-long crime spiral. Violence increasing every day and the authorities are powerless to prevent it.
Music teacher Andrew Norris returns to teaching after a brief absence, taking a job at an inner city school. He’s shocked to find metal detectors for the students and that his fellow faculty are carrying guns for protection. It’s soon clear that violence and lawlessness are endemic in the halls. Student gangs fight for real estate to deal drugs, while coddled by feckless school administrators and ignored by police who won’t act on any crime without a witness.
Class of 1984 groups together many of the boogeymen of its era: punk rock, juvenile delinquency, gang culture, poor kids in fancy cars, and drug dealing. Though the vessel for all of these is awkward: a lily-white punk gang lead by the blond-haired “Stegman”.
Looking back on the endemic levels of crime from the sixties to the early nineties, scientists and anthropologists have many culprits: restrictions on abortion, lack of proper policing, or mass lead poisoning (my personal favorite candidate). People at the time didn’t have the benefit of a decades of social research. To them the problem was much more obvious. They knew who were robbing the stores, fighting in the gangs. For them Norris is a suitable surrogate. When faced with the problem students, he’s compelled to act to enforce proper authority. Perhaps more importantly Norris knows a cancer when he sees it, and knows some children are beyond saving.
Part of the thrill is how Class of 1984 wholly adopts the tropes of the delinquent-student genre, just to discard them at every turn. Stegman is not just a power-hungry, violent manipulator. When Norris demands he stay out of the music class, Stegman pounds on the class piano like a gorilla but quickly transitions to playing a beautiful concerto piece. He looks to Norris with an expression of mania and a genuine need for approval. Norris refuses him outright. In this world it doesn’t matter how gifted a person is.
When Norris tracks down Stegman’s mother we learn he lives in a single parent household, still taboo at the time. It makes no difference. That Stegman appears to be a doting son who loves--or at least lets himself be loved by--his mother makes no difference.
Director Mark Lester cited A Clockwork Orange as the primary influence of the film, but the plot hews much closer to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. If the build up to the climax is too long, and Norris’s revenge breezes by too quickly, you can chalk that up to a deference to that film in practice if not in intent. At the same time the moral Class of 1984 is trying to build an argument that it’s just for the adult Norris to murder five teenagers. The audience should cheer when the gang members are immolated and dismembered, lynched and presented to a crowd of innocents. To get to that point Stegman and his gang get to cross “the line” multiple times throughout the film, going “too far” frequently.
Roddy McDowell plays what may be the only other teacher in the school, and Norris’s close confidant. Class of 1984 is also notable for the film debut of Michael J Fox. Wearing one of cinema’s worst bowl-cuts Fox shows little of the charisma that would ignite as Alex Keaton on Family Ties that same year.
As a vision of the bleak future, Class of 1984 falls a bit short. Who would’ve thought that one day it’d be common for schools to use metal detectors, but that the auto shops and music classes would disappear? Indeed, with its fully stocked labs and amenities the high school probably looks ideal to modern educators, graffiti aside.