(R, Vestron Pictures, 91 mins., limited release date: March 24, 1989)
Arriving far too late to capitalize on either the slasher or sex comedy cycles that were meant to amuse undiscriminating children of the 1980s, Cutting Class functions more like a remedial-friendly term paper on both of these genres. It's a tough sit for anyone with the slightest appreciation of what is a mostly overqualified cast, from luminous Jill Schoelen (cf: The Phantom of the Opera) on down to slumming vets Martin Mull and Roddy McDowall. One might be compelled to give it a spin on the basis of Brad Pitt in a prominent, pre-marquee supporting performance. But this isn't even on the same plane as rediscovering, say, Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone or Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3, as Cutting Class is to Pitt what Shadows Run Black was to Kevin Costner. George Clooney, all is forgiven.
It's also the kind of movie that made me appreciate more the things Pet Sematary Two got right, particularly the scene-stealing vigor of Clancy Brown, his sadistic one-liners having worked as comic relief based on his professionalism. Cutting Class is also peppered with smart-alecky dialogue: "I'm going to change my IQ. Is 300 too high?" and "I'm the custodian of your fucking destiny!" and "I was a murderer. It wasn't as prestigious as being a doctor or a lawyer, but the hours were good." The first is spoken apropos by the school exhibitionist (Brenda Lynne Klemme, who'd go on to James Gunn's superior Slither) while her friends are searching through the school files hoping to learn about a creepy kid. I guess this is meant to justify the unfounded Heathers comparisons some fools throw at Cutting Class, but this doesn't wash due to poor timing and performance.
The second quote comes from the janitor (Robert Glaudini), a nutty veteran who cleans up after the aforementioned girl's grisly demise. It would've worked better had the janitor not turned away from the students twice before saying it, because it does come off as desperate. I'll leave the third quote alone, as it easily the best of the bunch and the closest thing to successful humor Cutting Class nearly pulls off. But the point stands in that I've seen Friday the 13th sequels with more finesse than this, and there isn't a single funny line to compare with what you'd find in a cheesy Juan Piquer Simon bloodbath like Pieces or Slugs.
Wholesome Paula Carson (Schoelen) says goodbye to her father William (Mull), a district attorney off on a week's duck-hunting vacation which is sabotaged by a homicidal archer. The body count would seem to begin, but one lone arrow isn't enough to kill Mr. Carson, and Martin Mull spends the rest of the movie trudging along the marsh looking for unwilling help. Paula, meanwhile, rebuffs the advances of her boyfriend Dwight Ingalls (Pitt), a dim jock on the verge of failing out of school and blowing his basketball scholarship because of his mean streak. The bane of Dwight's ire is his former best friend Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch), who has returned to school after being institutionalized for the murder of his father and develops a spooky crush on Paula. Brian and Dwight in turn become the only tangible suspects when members of the faculty and a couple of Paula's friends get killed.
Rospo Pallenberg, in his sole directing credit after a career under John Boorman's mentorship, and writer Steve Slavkin (who transitioned to children's entertainment starting with Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts) lack the basic motor function which keeps their tongue inside cheek, so they instead blow raspberries at the target audience. You would expect a satiating supply of gore and nudity, but both these obligations are carried out half-heartedly. The art teacher is cooked alive in a kiln and the gym coach lands on the blunt end of a flagpole during trampoline exercises (Eli Roth was indeed paying attention). These are the only interesting set pieces, and they are both insufficiently nasty. Only at the end of the film is the splatter quota jacked up, but the resolution of the central murder mystery is as predictable as the flippant turn of the killer.
Excepting some mandatory locker room flesh (two breasts, as Joe Bob Briggs would point out), the camera leers at Jill Schoelen to such an overbearing degree that it makes her shower scene in The Stepfather a model of high class. Schoelen is well and truly sexy, but in the asinine context of Cutting Class, the peek-a-boo panty shots put you in the loafers of the opportunistically perverted principal (Roddy McDowall, losing all dignity on his way to Shakma). Not helping matters is the stultifying blandness of her character, who is both the only student aware of the missing persons as well as so desperate for her cocky squeeze's ring that she breaks into the school with him just to ridicule Brian. Again, this is the exact opposite of Jill's solid work in The Stepfather.
Schoelen is capable but squandered here, which is more than you can say of the male leads. Brian is meant to remind us of the Norman Bates of Psycho II, a reformed murderer nervously trying to preserve his dwindling sanity even as he's vilified by an angry mob who takes it on faith that he's no better even after being exposed to more shock therapy than any of Nurse Ratched's charges. But as played by Donovan Leitch (son of "Sunshine Superman" and brother to Ione Skye), Brian is an uninspiring mixture of Emilio Estevez's Kirbo from St. Elmo's Fire and Lawrence Monoson's Gary from The Last American Virgin, which is bad enough chemistry on its own. Brian's not even the Norman Bates of Psycho III. Brad Pitt's hothead stud is just as embarrassing, from a "cute" opening in which he nearly runs over a child ("Same time tomorrow?") to a horrendously simpering breakdown over a payphone (he's not the Norman Bates of Psycho IV). Paula's supposed moment of Final Girl triumph is utterly ridiculous given the reprehensibility of both Brian and Dwight.
Cutting Class is absolutely needless, to say the least. There was only one real attempt at parodying slasher movies in the 1980s: Student Bodies, a hit-and-miss gagfest clearly inspired by Airplane! On the whole, though, horror comedies walked a very thin line back then, with An American Werewolf in London and Fright Night managing to work on both levels and others like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or TerrorVision (and countless others, judging by your memory) coming across as just plain goofy. Cutting Class doesn't even fulfill that low standard. Even the soundtrack, with its original tunes by new wave has-beens Wall of Voodoo, cannot set a convincing tone. Never has a campus movie held itself back with such mechanical indifference as Cutting Class.