Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Census Flashback: High School Mayhem

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which a high school kid suits up and fights crime. In honor of its release, I’ll be reviewing a Brad Pitt slasher about deadly crimes at a high school: Cutting Class. Does the Sexiest Man Alive have what it takes to STAY alive?

Year: 1989
Director: Rospo Pallenberg
Cast: Donovan Leitch, Jill Schoelen, Brad Pitt
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1989 was the last gasp of the slasher golden age, churning out as many half-baked slice-em-ups as humanly possible, despite the MPAA’s crackdown on gory movies. The slashers of the year had essentially split into two camps: crazy last-ditch gimmicks and self-parody. While Cutting Class isn’t tonally tight or incisive like the far superior Return to Horror High, it’s certainly a flimsy stab at the latter.

One thing Cutting Class has going for it is its cast: almost every single person from the leads on down has had enough success to afford to include a headshot on their IMDb profile, a luxury very few Census Bloodbath entries can boast. That doesn’t mean they’re good, but at least they’re professional, and that definitely counts for something.

And also one of them is LITERALLY Brad Pitt.

Here is the plot those headshots are asked to play out. High school overachiever Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen of The Stepfather) has the house to herself when her D.A. dad (Martin Mull, who is incredible in a lot of things, but especially Clue, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Arrested Development) goes out for a weeklong hunting trip.

She wants to use this time for incessant studying, but her jock boyfriend Dwight (Brad F**king Pitt) has other ideas. She resists his libidinous advances, but agrees to get dragged into high school hijinks with their beer-swilling friends Gary (Mark Barnet) and Colleen (Brenda James). Unfortunately the people around her begin to disappear at the hands of an unseen murderer. Is it the creepy Brian (Donovan Leitch of The Blob), who was just released from a five year stint at a mental institution after cutting the brakes on his father’s car? The leering principal Mr. Dante (Roddy McDowall, having a great time)? The schizophrenic, philosophizing janitor Schultz (Robert Glaudini)?

Meanwhile, Martin Mull has been shot with an arrow, and spends literally the entire remainder of the film on an allegedly wacky quest to get back home through the swamp. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally sat on your remote and changed the channel every 15 minutes or so.

Cue the tuba music.

Cutting Class’ wackiness is the only thing that differentiates it from the pack, but it’s also its downfall. Although there are mildly amusing interstitial scenes like a student haggling over a 50 cent ticket or the incredibly weird janitor smoking a joint, most of the comedy comes in the form of half-assed Breakfast Club antics that endlessly vomit forth with no sense of urgency. And then there’s Martin Mull over there, who seems to be wading through some kind of long-lost Caddyshack sequel.

All this unfunny business drastically undercuts the tension, and the kills are too few and far between (and mostly bloodless) to hold your attention. Cutting Class drifts like an unmoored yacht, smashing into scene after scene with brute force and no apparent direction until the final 20 minutes.

But oh, what a final 20 minutes they are! They pull out all the stops so smoothly it almost makes you feel as if the entire movie had been perfectly tuned to lead up to this sparkling crescendo (spoiler: it wasn’t). It’s ladled with so much bonkers 80’s cheese that it drowns out all the memories of anemic horror, inconsistent character motivations, and crushingly repetitive scenes of Paula trying to study.

If the entire movie matched the manic energy of the killer’s reveal (a bizarrely twisted explanatation that’s exactly what you expected but so much more, delivered with a Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 level of wooden fervor), the Saw-esque math problem death trap, and the battle in the woodshop, Cutting Class would be without a doubt the greatest slasher entry of the year.

Not that Jason Takes Manhattan was much competition.

Unfortunately, we do have that full hour of teenybopper nonsense to contend with. And while this cast is well above the standard for slashers at the time, that’s still a perilously low bar. Jill Schoelen, for one, delivers all her lines like she’s murmuring them in her sleep, and not even Brad Pitt shines. For one thing, his character is a raging asshole that he probably wouldn’t even be able to redeem now as a veteran actor. Seriously, Dwight is the freaking worst, and its hard to get on board with his late-film stint as the heroic boyfriend.

If an asshole saves the day and there’s nobody around who cares, is he still a hero?

Frankly, I wouldn’t care if you played hooky on Cutting Class. It’s a minor amusement from the dregs of the decade, and you definitely do worse, but it’s just not as fun as it wants to be. The flop sweat is overpowering, and only the most hardcore of Brad Pitt or slasher fans should consider making the approach.

Killer: Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch)
Final Girl: Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen)
Best Kill: The physical and motivationally preposterous scene where Coach Harris is bouncing idly on a trampoline until a flag is placed underneath him, on which he impales himself.
Sign of the Times: Brad Pitt gets third billing behind Jill Schoelen, for crying out loud.
Scariest Moment: Colleen sees her boyfriend killed in front of her and her screams are drowned out by the marching band.
Weirdest Moment: Roddy McDowall’s final onscreen appearance is during a backstage auditorium chase scene where Brad Pitt walks in on him trying on a powdered wig full of fruit.
Champion Dialogue: “Have you ever felt my tingle?”
Body Count: 7
  1. Mr. Conklin is baked in a kiln.
  2. Gary has his throat slit.
  3. Colleen is killed offscreen.
  4. Mrs. Knocht has her head slammed into the copy machine.
  5. Coach Harris is impaled on an American flag.
  6. Mr. Glynn is axed to death.
  7. Bryan has the short end of a hammer buried in his head and is buzz sawed in the back.
TL;DR: Cutting Class is a mildly bemusing but gormless slasher that's at least slightly redeemed by its bonkers ending.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1099


  1. Hey, I think I own this. Checking... checking. No, wait, that's Slaughter High. (Tagline: Marty majored in cutting classmates. And there's a lot wrong with that tagline, but let's leave it alone, eh?)

    Anyway, old friend, I mention it just to remind you that there's a lot of these things, and you'll never be truly done.

    1. Oh, and as for the actual Cutting Class, it's not terribly surprising that Pitt sucks in it. Pitt's lucky he's so good-looking, because it gave him a chance to continue to work on his acting in real movies, with real filmmakers, for years upon years--which is how long it took before he figured out what he was good at and finally started turning in some really great performances, only about a solid decade after he'd started acting.

    2. Well, we gotta learn SOMEWHERE, right? And honestly, I really love Slaughter High.