Sunday, October 14, 2012

LIE #53: Be Cruel to Your School (From 1976, DVD MIA “Massacre at Central High”)

Massacre at Central High (1976; Rene Daalder) is an incredible political metaphor disguised as a sleazy B-movie that needs to be (re)discovered*

Copious violence and teen nudity is the hook to get asses in the seats, but like with the best grindhouse potboilers, a strong sociopolitical message is inserted.
Not that that should stop you from enjoying naked teenagers getting slaughtered.

Self-described as a loner who “stands up for the little guy,” David is the new kid at Central High, and if it wasn’t for his pre-existing friendship with the essentially spineless Mark, David would have really fallen afoul of Bruce and his buddies: They are the rich sadists who brutally enforce a “no complaints” totalitarian regime at the school. The place is clean and runs smoothly, but no dissention—no free speech at all—is allowed.

You know something is amiss in this film within moments: There are no adults. Teachers, parents and the police are mentioned, but for most of the film there is no one who is not a teenager (and when the “grown-ups” do finally appear, they seem like poorly reanimated corpses).
In this world, it’s the adolescents and only the adolescents who are the cause (and possible solution) to their problems.

Meanwhile, the film’s primary location is the school’s hallways, student lounge, lockers and grounds (never a classroom, where we’d likely see an adult)—while we see these kids outdoors at the beach or camping, we never see them at a fast-food joint, mall or arcade:
It’s either school or nature—both Darwinian nightmares red in tooth and claw. No escape.

[BTW, many of the exterior locations of “Central High,” especially the ivy-covered academic building, were filmed at my alma mater, Pomona College, see right.]

After they drop a car on his leg and leave him with a permanent limp,
David eventually “takes care” of the bullying assholes—but the resulting power vacuum only creates chaos.

Like a true anarchist, David wonders “Can there be neither followers nor leaders?” But the rest of the kids at Central High ain’t too bright, and a horrible and stupid pecking order reappears, with all previous thoughts of solidarity gone.
So of course, David must take action again. The people will be taught, even if it kills them…

Directed by former Russ Meyer assistant Rene Daalder (which may explain the ease with which the wonderfully-gratuitous nudity is incorporated into the movie—don’t worry, folks, there’s plenty of beefcake as well for those who like it), Massacre at Central High (love that direct and to-the-point, almost brutal, title) hides its lack of budget well, particularly in how action is very often indicated through almost subliminal montage.
The financial constraints force Daalder to use only a handful of locations, but this sense that we’re observing some sort of closed “pocket universe” only increases the nightmarish unease. No escape.

Zone of Spoilerz!
That David doesn’t blow up the school at the end is a huge disappointment to me, notably as he’s stopped by the most lame-brained petit bourgeois morality and weak screenwriting: he loves a girl (who does have sweet breasts, it has to be said).

The ending (where we’re finally introduced to the waxworks-like adults) feels so tacked-on that I routinely forget it happens—and that might be for the best: it’s nicer to imagine David never stopping his attempts to inspire true personal freedom through the terrorism and murder of a reign of blood.

M@CH has been made to engage you on an intellectual level, to think about revolution, leadership and the resulting responsibilities and realities. It’s almost-heavy-handed political agitprop—like it were some Eastern European film, critical of its commie-totalitarian regime, but needing to couch everything in metaphor, so the Secret Police don’t catch on.
(If you’re looking for something more emotionally resonant, check out Keith Gordon’s moving and underseen The Chocolate War (1988), which absolutely reminded me of my miserable school days—I hate the place so much, the only reason I haven’t removed my name from the alumni mailing list is because I like to see them waste money on me.)

* = I say “(re)discovered” because I’m not sure if this flick was even “discovered” on its initial release. I only learned about Massacre at Central High via Danny Peary’s collection of essays, Cult Movies, and it has always been hard to find, with a sketchy VHS release, and no DVD release.
In fact, when Spectacle Theater, a recommended and homey hole-in-the-wall movie theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, screened Massacre at Central High in September, the “print” (it was actually a digital projection) was director Daalder’s own copy!


  1. I taped this off TBS overnight a million years ago on a VHS tape that, sadly, no longer tracks. Luckily, AMAZON at least has a digital print you can buy dirt cheap via their streaming services.

    The ending didn't work for me, either, and judging by what we've seen, the only time any kind of calm at the school is only achieved during the bloody regime changes. That's me shrugging right now.

  2. The digital version provided by director Daalder looked fine, but even that was cropped and seems not the highest resolution, so made me think, will we ever see a really nice print of this? Granted, it's not supposed to be a pretty picture, but still would like to see it closer to it's originally intended visual aesthetic.

  3. SqD: Not unless someone finds a decent 16mm or 35mm print somewhere--and if we do, we won't watch the last reel!