Sunday, October 19, 2008

The October Ordeal II 02: Cutting Class (1989)

(Spoilers throughout)

The low-budget psycho-killer whodunit Cutting Class can be considered part of the final wave of non-franchise 80s teen slashers. While the proceeding decade would produce films riffing on the genre and deconstructing it, Cutting Class settles comfortably into the parameters of the form. While its plot and narrative arc are rote, there are many bizarre—and unfortunate—idiosyncratic moments which make Cutting Class interesting—if not enjoyable.

First time director Rospo Pallenberg (writer of Exorcist II, and the John Boorman films Excalibur and The Emerald Forest) helms an ensemble cast of high-school students and faculty: Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch, Jr.), Paula Carson (Jill Shoelen of Popcorn, Chiller and The Stepfather) and Dwight Ingalls (Brad Pitt!) on one side, with veteran character actors in the “adult” roles, including Martin Mull as Paula’s father, and Roddy McDowall as the lecherous school Principal. Once the murders start, Cutting Class goes out of its way to provide about a dozen possible suspects, including several clear Red Herring throwaway false-leads.

Basketball hero Dwight, his girlfriend Paula, and their old friend Brian are simultaneously suspects and potential victims throughout. Brian seems the too-obvious choice, as he’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital for causing his abusive father’s death. He’s erratic, secretive and dresses all in black. In most films, he would be the secret hero, noble yet misunderstood. (Spoiler!) Not here, as Woods is in fact the killer. Cutting Class did have me guessing throughout, but not in the kind of way where, through deduction, the mystery could be solved—it could have been anyone, really. For example, we discover that Dwight taught Brian how to cut brake lines, which is the method he used to do in his dad, and that Paula has feelings for Brian, and that her father acted as a lawyer during Brian’s trial. I never believed for a second that the pervy Principal, the creepy night janitor (quote: “I am the custodian of your fucking destiny!”) or the tough gym teacher were serious contenders. By making the young “psycho” the villain, Cutting Class merely becomes yet another film in the horror genre perpetuating negative stereotypes about those suffering from mental health conditions or those who have spent time in psychiatric facilities. Great.

Cutting Class is best remembered for featuring a “young” (26) Pitt. It isn’t difficult, however, to forget about the media superstar Brad Pitt of today when viewing this film, as he isn’t given any more screen time or space than Leitch or Shoelen. In fact, there isn’t a thing remarkable about Pitt’s performance as the homophobic, racist, slick and arrogant Dwight. Dwight is relentlessly hard on Brian, his former friend. He tells Brian he went to the hospital with “a broken mind”—as in, not a leg. In one brazenly offensive scene—played for laughs—he convinces an entire classroom full of kids to fake electrocution, mocking Brian by reminding him of the electro-shock therapy he was subjected to. Pitt’s performance is broad: he plays Dwight the jock as dopy, jiving and erratic, in what is surely an attempt to cast Dwight as a reasonable suspect, but which instead comes off as uneven and bizarre.

Shoelen’s Paula is a jumbled and confused character. On the surface she’s a squeaky-clean good-girl cheerleader and straight-A student (who’s actually withholding sex from Dwight until he brings his grades up). Yet, at the same time, she is made the object of lust for nearly every male character in the film (yes, including her father). The advances of these men and boys are obvious and sneering, yet she seems completely oblivious, which ultimately amounts to subconscious compliance here. Never have I seen the classic media “whore/virgin” binary contained so completely in a single character. This point is really the film’s most blatant and baffling stumbling block, which demands further attention here.

The universe of Cutting Class is an exploitative, mean-spirited and libidinous place, with Paula at its center. In the first scene of the film, Paula goes outside to talk to Mull in her underwear, while he loads up his truck for a hunting expedition (this “city boy goes to the country” thread runs throughout as comic relief). She seems always in the act of presenting herself as a sex object, as if the film acts as a medium connecting her directly with the wishes of masturbating 14-year old viewers. Later on, she fingers a photo of her and her father, and then makes out with Dwight—who’s wearing her dad’s suit—on her parents’ bed. Sheesh!

While Roddy McDowall is a welcome presence in a sea of bland performances (he’s clearly having fun playing a sleazy authority figure), his Mr. Dante is a truly despicable character (who is of course comic relief). He drinks booze in his office in one scene, and makes Paula bend down in front of him, exposing her panties, and suggests she try on her new cheerleading outfit right there in his office. Inexplicably, later in the film Dante is seen hanging out in the theatre, trying on ladies’ clothing and make-up. Even worse than Dante is Paula’s art teacher, who presents a scantily-clad Paula as a figure model for his students to sketch. This seems not only creepy and inappropriate, but nearly illegal as well. Dwight says to the teacher “You like boys don’t you?” to which the teacher sneers “No!” while eyeing Paula to prove it. Is the audience really supposed to think Paula is such a naïf? Or is she into it? She’s a chaste character in the script, but as directed, she becomes merely an object, as framed by the film’s unapologetic male gaze. The teacher is later placed in a giant kiln by Brian and killed.

During each of these scenes, Brian is in the background somewhere, out of sight, spying. Whether he’s “protector” or killer, this is still serious, obsessive voyeurism, which I guess is supposed to be romantic. Dwight usually isn’t far off either. Is this a typical day at school for these kids? While totally different in tone, the presentation of these characters reminds of contemporary Troma, in that not a single principle is likable. And while Shoelen is an interesting actor (with a unique gravelly off-type voice), Pitt and Leitch are dull and thin in their performances. A bit more intensity from Leitch would have helped, and a lot less of what Pitt clearly thought was intensity.

When Cutting Class finally gets around to its conclusion, it is without much satisfaction. In some ways the film never really gets started, as it never achieves any sort of appropriate tension or dramatic rhythm. Dwight and Paula are final boy and final girl, and the two manage to kill Brian in a shop-class brawl, where Brian and Dwight fight each other with various power-tools. For most of the battle, Paula merely screams. When it looks like Dwight is going to lose, she distracts Brian by taking her shirt of. She then hits him in the head with a hammer and yells “I’m sick of people playing with my emotions!” This is almost the single clear statement in the film, only if framed in the context of her position here as both a character and an actor. Whatever is gained with this declaration is promptly lost in the next scene (a final “Gotcha!” where Dwight and Paula nearly crash Dwight’s Jeep, of which Brian sabotaged earlier), when Paula tells Dwight and her father “I likes Brian… so much for feminine intuition!” Mull answers a few questions for the audience (still leaving a few plot holes), and ends the film with both a titular line and a final tag” “You kids aren’t cutting class are you?” Freeze-frame, and we’re done.

Scores of slashers work similar plots into fine films that work on any number of levels. Cutting Class however opts to highlight the negative and essentialist assumptions which are often implicit in the form. That said, the film could have used itself as a commentary, a kind of genre expose, or at least as a template for black humor and transgression. Instead, it merely wallows joylessly in it’s own grime, content. Most slashers have an established set of leads, but Cutting Class goes out of its way to present the worst aspects of these stereotypes, simultaneously congratulating its jock-hero asshole boyfriend and objectifying its naïve teenage girlfriend—for laughs. Cutting Class is a historical and genre curiosity; it is recommended only in this way.


joly said...

good review, makes me want to watch, and touch, this movie. i'm glad to see you take a nice relaxed pace with October Ordeal this year!

nurul mustofa said...