Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Massacre at Central High (1976)



          When the black comedy Heathers was released to considerable acclaim in 1988, some movie fans cried foul because Heathers appeared to cop its plot from Massacre at Central High, only with an ending that felt timid compared to the climax of the earlier picture. That said, Heathers boasts verbal wit and visual style that Massacre at Central High cannot match, since Massacre at Central High suffers from shortcomings including cheap production values and inconsistent acting, so in some ways the latter film improves upon its predecessor, whether the association between the movies was accidental or deliberate. In any event, watching Massacre at Central High today is a very different experience than watching it during the mid-’70s, when Massacre at Central High was originally released, or even the early ’80s, when I first encountered the film on cable. What once seemed like an outrageous revenge fantasy is now, sadly, an everyday reality—so if you or someone you love has felt the impact of a school shooting, chances are you will find Massacre at Central High sensationalistic and unpleasant.
          The movie opens with the arrival of a new student at a generic suburban high school in Southern California. David (Derrel Maury) doesn’t know anyone at his new school except Mark (Andrew Stevens), a classmate from a previous institution. Luckily for David, Mark belongs to a powerful clique of young men who rule the student body through intimidation. Yet David is an iconoclast with no stomach for bullies, so he rebuffs invitations to join the ruling class. This puts David’s old friend Mark in a tough spot, and it prompts the other bullies to make an example of the new guy. The bullies attack David in an auto garage, disengaging a hydraulic lift and dropping a car onto his leg. Once David recovers, he seeks revenge by murdering the bullies, one by one, until Mark realizes what’s happening and forces a confrontation.
          Writer-director Rene Daalder takes a highly stylized approach to the film’s storytelling, so virtually no adults are depicted onscreen; Daalder’s vision of American high school is that of a frontier where the strong make the rules and the weak resist at great peril. Some of the “kills” that Daalder stages are absurd, including an elaborate sequence revolving around hang-gliders, but the head of narrative steam that Daalder develops is potent. Furthermore, Daalder achieves that rare feat of actually changing the movie’s focus from one character to another midstream—David is introduced as the underdog hero, and then he morphs into a psychotic villain while Mark assumes the hero’s mantle. Tricky stuff.
          Make no mistake, Massacre at Central High is a low-budget B-movie, complete with a couple of leering nudie shots and a raft of underwritten supporting characters. (In an amusing bit of cinematic irony, one of the bullies’ victims is played by Robert Carradine, who later starred in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds.) Rendering these criticisms somewhat moot is Daalder’s determination to follow his outlandish premise all the way to its logical conclusion, visiting dark places that most teen movies of the same vintage fear to tread.

Massacre at Central High: GROOVY

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