October Horrorshow: Class of 1999

It’s the future, 1999, and the inner cities of America’s once great metropolises have been overrun by youth gangs. Areas surrounding high schools have been declared free fire zones. Police and authorities do not enter. Violence and drugs are rampant. Citizens are warned that if they enter these areas, they do so at their own risk.

Such is the world of the near future in director Mark L. Lester’s 1990 sci-fi/horror film, Class of 1999. If the idea of demilitarized zones in American cities seems like a familiar idea, that’s because Class of 1999 is hardly the first film to use the trope. Just last month I reviewed a real howler that imagined The Bronx as overrun by colorful gangs. That film ripped off The Warriors and Escape from New York. Those films have roots in Assault on Precinct 13. I could go further back into cinematic history or cast my net wider, but I’m sure readers get the idea. We have a post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian itch in this country that film regularly scratches. Class of 1999 is yet another entry. The good news is that while Class of 1999 is a shitty movie, it’s a fantastic shitty movie.

I’m glad I decided to watch this movie for the Horrorshow. There haven’t been nearly enough dogs in this year’s edition, and those that have made the cut have left me feeling a little empty. Class of 1999 is an example of shitty done right.

The Department of Educational Defense has been tasked with regaining control over America’s schools. Kennedy High School in the free fire zone in Seattle, Washington, has been chose as the location of a pilot program headed by the evil Dr. Forrest (Stacy Keach). We out here on the other side of the screen are clued in on Forrest’s nature in the opening scene. He’s the first person we see in this movie, and his pearlescent white flattop, magnificent rattail, and white contact lenses all scream mad scientist. Which is exactly what he is!

Forrest has invented a series of androids, originally designed for military use. He, with the cooperation of Kennedy’s principal, Dr. Langford (Malcolm McDowell), has decided to assign three of them to the school, not to provide security, but as teachers. The three ‘artificially created tactical education units’ are tasked with bringing knowledge and discipline to the misguided youths of inner city Seattle.

The casting of the three androids couldn’t have been better. Veteran ‘that guy’ John P. Ryan plays history teacher Mr. Hardin. Patrick Kilpatrick plays sadistic gym instructor Mr. Bryles. And Blaxploitation legend Pam Grier plays Ms. Connors, the school’s chemistry teacher. I was not expecting much out of the three, but they have decent chemistry in their scenes together. Ryan, in particular, seems to relish his role.

On the first day of school, the three robot teachers make their presences felt, dishing out beatings to misbehaving students. The true nature of the teachers has been kept a secret from the students, so they think they’re all getting their asses kicked by tough people. But one student, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), has suspicions. He doesn’t necessarily think the teachers are robots, but he seems to be the only person in the entire free fire zone who thinks it odd that teachers can be so violent.

Cody is no innocent bystander. As part of the pilot program, Seattle’s most violent youth gang members have been released from prison to attend Kennedy and give the robots a full test. Cody is one of those gang members. But, in order to endear him to the audience, Lester uses the full gamut of conflicted antihero tropes to convey to the audience that Cody is really a stand up fellow, and his life of crime is more nurture than nature. Cody even finds himself trying to woo the principal’s daughter, Christie (Traci Lind). Why Dr. Langford felt it would be a good idea to send his squeaky clean daughter to an inner city shithole for her education is beyond me, but hey, some people take pride in their work, even if they are delusional. Either way, she’s there, and does her duty as an occasional damsel in distress.

But the real focus of the film is Cody versus the teachers. The teachers continue to get more violent, and Cody continues to get more pissed at the rising body count. This leads inevitably to a battle of epic proportions in the final act. It rips elements from The Terminator, but it doesn’t matter. The Terminator only had one homicidal robot, while Class of 1999 has three! Of course, it also had a director who was not James Cameron. But the final robot confrontation was incredible. I won’t spoil it because I really believe that lovers of shitty movies should seek this one out, but where the finale of The Terminator was a master class in tension, in Class of 1999’s finale I was laughing like a barking seal. I couldn’t have picked a better movie to bring me out of the shitty movie doldrums in this Horrorshow. Class of 1999 is a better movie than Alien: Resurrection.