Thursday, October 14, 2010

Massacre at Central High (1976)

Directed by Rene Daalder
Starring Derrel Maury, Andrew Stevens, Robert Carradine, Kimberly Beck, Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith
Rated R

You’re the new kid. You’re buds with one of the members of the innermost, most powerful clique at Central High. But you’re a rebel. A loner. You don’t go for this clique-stuff, no sir.

So what happens? Massacre at Central High, that’s what.

Vets of 70s drive-ins, early 80s cable, or the days of VHS and Betamax may remember this cult classic, the first feature from writer-director Rene Daalder whose credits-listing as “Renee” might cause some to think mistakenly it’s a woman at the helm. (It’s a man, baby.)

Holland-born Daalder got his start working with Russ Meyer (Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens), who is described on Daalder’s website as the person responsible for the Dutchman’s “initiation in all things American.” (Just imagine that for a moment, if you will.) Sounds like Daalder worked as a cameraman for Meyer and co-wrote an ultimately unproduced script for Meyer as well.

As far as its theatrical life is concerned, Daalder’s low-budgeted drama came and went without a whole lot of fanfare. This despite the praise of several critics including Roger Ebert who cited it as one of the better films of 1976, then heralded it again as a “Guilty Pleasure” a few years later on an episode of “At the Movies,” the PBS version of the show Ebert co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Danny Peary also singled it out for analysis in his second Cult Movies reader.

In the decades since, Massacre has been frequently mentioned as an influential, early example of the ultra-violent high school revenge flick, with several later films -- 1989’s Heathers, in particular -- clearly demonstrating its influence. It’s getting-back-at-the-bullies premise is also sometimes evoked in discussions of real-life high school massacres, most especially the one that occurring at Columbine High in Colorado in 1999.

The title cries exploitative horror, though there’s certainly more going on here than your typical grindhouse fare. It fact, the movie ultimately goes beyond the simple revenge formula to try to present a kind of Animal Farm-type allegory about power and its effect on us. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film entirely succeeds in advancing some sort of coherent “message” about such. But it does get you thinkin’ -- perhaps more than you might expect to do when watching a film with such a title.

As the opening credits roll, we see the new kid, David, running on the California beach, accompanied by a melodramatic tune declaring “You’re at the crossroads of your life.” Weird “flash-forwards” are intercut here, previews of some of the violence to come.

Soon we’re at school with David, effectively played by a brooding Derrel Maury. With David we witness the three bullies -- Bruce, Paul, and Craig -- in the hall roughing up Spoony, a pre-Revenge of the Nerds Robert Carradine for having drawn a swastika on a locker.

“It’s a social protest,” Spoony explains. “That’s very sixties,” says Bruce, and the rough-housing continues.

That opening exchange does set up what seems like a kind of conflict between an earlier, idealistic time (the 60s) and the more practical, self-interested present (the 70s) where all that “summer of love” crap no longer flies. In any event, David makes a bad first impression when he seems to object to Spoony’s abuse.

Eventually David ends up in a student lounge, a space seemingly ruled by the bullies along with David’s friend Mark, played by Andrew Stevens, a familiar face that fans of movies about girls might remember from 1982’s The Seduction (starring Morgan Fairchild).

Actually, the whole campus is pretty clearly under the bullies’ dominion. It’s a weird world, Central High, where no teachers are ever shown, nor do we meet any parents or other adults for pretty much the entire film.

“This place is a fucking country club,” is how Mark describes the scene to David. “Gotta be able to change your whole style here,” he instructs. “You gotta drop that loner shit.” It’s pretty obvious from the eye-rolls that David isn’t comfortable with his friend’s advice.

The first half-hour rapidly establishes the dynamics of power at Central High while also introducing the female cast. There’s Mark’s girl, Theresa, played by a fetching Kimberly Beck (the final girl in 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). Lani O’Grady, one of the sisters on “Eight Is Enough,” is there, too, as Jane, along with the ever-sweet Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith, the cult-film fave who plays Mary.

The girls are aware of David’s unwillingness to accept the school’s firmly established power structure, but aren’t optimistic he’ll be able to continue to do so for long. As Jane says, “they get to everyone sooner or later.”

David keeps steaming as he watches the fellas rough up more nerds.

Meanwhile, David also laments at the attitude of his friend, Mark, who seemingly endorses such behavior. The nerds don’t care much, either, for David’s attempts at helping them. “Don’t you people ever fight back?” asks David incredulously.

The bullying turns even uglier as the troublesome trio grab Mary and Jane and pull them into an unoccupied classroom for what appears to be an afterschool gangbang. (Again, the viewer wonders, where the hell are the teachers?).

David decides he can’t sit back and watch any longer, and summarily whips all three in satisfying fashion.

Somewhat surprisingly, David and Theresa subsequently enjoy some dimly-lit skinny-dipping at dusk, which Mark finds out about later but doesn’t seem too bothered by. As it turns out, that little bit of fun is but a momentary respite for our protagonist, who soon receives a painful response from the bullies that leaves him crippled.

David tells no one of what happened to cause his now-permanent limp. “Ratting on people is not my style,” he explains. (Of course, in this world without adults it isn’t clear to whom he would do the ratting, even if it were his style.)

No, David’s style involves revenge. The violent kind. The middle third of the film is then taken up with his dealing with the bullies one by one, employing novel, slasher-film-style methods with each.

Along the way, Mark and Teresa make love on the beach (another dusky, hard-to-see encounter), after which Mark wonders if he, too, will fall victim to David’s wrath.

The film does not end with David’s revenge, rather continuing on into a third act, which is why I think critics like Ebert found the film more interesting than your typical drive-in offerings. (That, or perhaps Ebert’s own connection with Russ Meyer predisposed him toward giving the Daalder-directed Massacre more attention than he otherwise might have.)

“What goes around comes around,” says a newly-emboldened Spoony, sort of ironically summing up the new order. One soon realizes that with the bullies out of the way, something not-so-nice seems to be happening to the nerds as a result. “Suddenly this school is rife with opportunity,” says Arthur, who works in the library, as he tries to convince David that the two of them (brawn & brains) can become Central High’s new leaders.

David doesn’t like it. Not one bit. What happens? More nasty surprises.

Oh, and more stuff gets blowed up.

Will leave aside the particulars of how things turn out, other than to point out one much better-lit, campage-a-trois involving Jane, Mary, and Spoony. Spoony’s not such a nerd after all, it seems!

At under 90 minutes, Massacre at Central High gallops along at what to me seems a much-too-fast pace for any deeper messages to be absorbed (or plot twists to be accepted). Still, it's an entertaining ride, as well as a modest achievement with some historical significance. Definitely worth checking out for those with an interest in high school melodrama, “bully comeuppance” flicks, ultraviolence and/or explosions, Rainbeaux Smith, or all things '70s.

- Triple S

1 comment:

  1. You can buy this on dvd-r at super strange video dot com.....


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