Synopsis: A series of murders coincides with the return of a young high school student.
Stars: Donovan Leitch, Jill Schoelen, Brad Pitt, Roddy McDowall, Nancy Fish, Brenda James, Mark Barnet, Tom Ligon, Dirk Blocker, Martin Mull
Director: Rospo Pallenberg
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: A few Octobers ago, I reviewed He Knows You’re Alone, an early slasher film released in 1980 that arrived on the heels of Friday the 13th and just before the wave of generic serial killer movies came crashing down on audiences. While mostly forgotten today, it is best known to trivia nerds as the big-screen debut of Tom Hanks in a small supporting role. The future Oscar winner doesn’t talk much about He Knows You’re Alone, not even to reflect that the work was a means to an end on getting him through the door to an industry he’d eventually reign over.
Hanks is just one of several stars who made it big after starting in low-budget horror films. Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts both had bit parts in individual Children of the Corn sequels and who can forget Jennifer Aniston’s leading role in 1992’s dreadful Leprechaun? You have to wonder if Aniston and ex-husband Brad Pitt ever sat down and watched their early genre appearances during their marriage. She’d get out an old VHS of her much-maligned cult hit on St. Patrick’s Day, and he could, in turn, dust off an early pan and scan DVD of Cutting Class, his 1989 slice and dicer that has developed its special following over the years.
On paper, it would seem like Cutting Class would be a surefire winner. The first feature film directed by Rospo Pallenberg, a long-time collaborator of John Boorman who worked with the director on Deliverance, Excalibur, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and The Emerald Forest, suggests that there would be more going on than simple bloodletting. The cast had recognizable names like Roddy McDowall, Martin Mull, and a reliably attractive scream queen lead in Jill Schoelen. With fresh-faced Pitt and rising heartthrob Donovan Leitch cast as love interests/potential suspects and a laid-back SoCal vibe, even a shoestring budget might not hamper this one too much, right?
Watching Cutting Class now, you see a movie that wants to be many different things except for the one thing that it should be. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a significant blueprint laid out for a black comedy that never materializes. Somewhere along the way, Pallenberg forgot his original intent and, through filming or editing, has delivered a disappointing attempt to goose the slasher genre with irreverent humor but never fully divests the action from being like every other maniac on the loose movie currently available.
Paula Carson (Schoelen, The Stepfather) is a popular cheerleader in high school who has the house to herself for the week. Her district attorney father (Mull, Clue) is on a duck hunting trip (?), and before he leaves, he wags his finger in her face and says, “Now remember, no cutting class!” Bwa hahaha! Cue the title card, right? Not so fast. We’ve already sat through an endless credit sequence watching a paperboy deliver (the same prop) paper to houses on his route as neighbors (who I don’t believe were extras in the film) watch on with blank stares.
I go into detail on this because it’s indicative of how Pallenberg prioritizes the wrong action to focus on throughout, and it just goes downhill from there. Paula attends a high school where all the boys seem to be up to no good, and all the male teachers are perverts. It’s no wonder someone starts to off both in gruesome fashion, though no one seems to miss them, discuss the vanishings or the bloody mess they leave behind. Could it be Paula’s boyfriend Dwight (Pitt, enthusiastically charming, if a tad overzealous) or Brian (Leitch), a childhood friend of Dwight’s who recently returned from a mental institution?
At times, Cutting Class plays like a series of vignettes that suggest what a serial killer loose in a high school would be like. Scenes begin and end with a slow fade in/out from black and campy performances (MacDowall was firmly in his flamboyant post-Fright Night cameo era here), only give the film a more unbalanced tone. Yet, for all its shortcomings and flaws, it’s never dull to sit through. I wouldn’t make it a yearly watch, but it’s so loopy that it becomes more fun the sooner you give yourself over to it. Like the Tom Hanks movie mentioned above, you aren’t watching Cutting Class to see Pitt’s early promise; you watch it to gain greater insight into how far he’s come.