There is the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Cliched? Absolutely. Trite? Perhaps. Accurate? Sadly yes and nowhere is it more apparent than in Rene Daalder’s brilliant and bleak 1976 film, Massacre at Central High. It is considered to be a huge influence on Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, but while the darkness of that film is cushioned by some exquisitely played gallows humor, Massacre at Central High is truly the unrelenting real deal.
The film begins with a young nerdish hippie type, Spoony (Robert Carradine), who is painting a swastika on the locker of one of his bullies. In fact, the bullies of Central High, Bruce (Ray Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond) and Paul (Damon Douglas), referred to by one character as “the little league Gestapo,” are more than just your garden variety jocks and mean kids. They rule the roost, complete with exclusive use of the student lounge and the more cherry part of the parking lot. The adults are neutered and the kids are all too scared and beaten down to challenge them. (Sound familiar?)
Their harassment of Spoony is interrupted by David (Derrel Maury), the new kid at school, who is trying to find the student lounge. (Not knowing yet that it is alpha-douchebag territory.) The guys tell him to all but get lost and other students ignore his query until the sweet-faced, flaxen-haired Theresa (Kimberley Beck) offers to walk him there. He is then greeted by his old friend, Mark (Andrew Stevens), who is telling him how “he’ll never have any trouble again.” As if on cue, the asshole trio saunter in and let Mark know that they all have already met. They soon leave and sensing the already growing tension, Mark warns David “to drop the loner shit” and that this could be like their own country club.
Turns out that David once did Mark a favor at their old school. The exact specs are never quite told, but enough is said to infer that basically, David protected Mark from the same exact kind of cretin that he is now hanging out with. Except that David didn’t even know him at the time. Speaking of cretins, the five of them hang out after school and go out for a joyride until they spot poor Rodney (Rex Steven Sikes),driving along in his sputtering, barely running vehicle. Considering his car’s existence within their vicinity a personal affront, they end up stopping and all pile into his vehicle, where they proceed to wreck it until it is as dead as Rodney’s sense of self-esteem. David’s quiet but Mark senses that he is not pleased about this incident.
This feeling builds, as David witnesses the trio kicking and brutally tormenting chubby Oscar (Jeffrey Winner), during gym class. Mark tries to excuse it, saying that they are ultimately helping him. David starts asking the same question a lot of viewers may be thinking, which is why isn’t anyone stopping these guys? The have-nots far out number them, but yet much of the student body walk around like whooped animals, lest they be the next targets for abuse. To hear Jane (Lani O’Grady) and Mary (Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith) tell it “they get to everyone sooner or later.”
David begins actively talking to their assorted victims, starting with Rodney and offers to help him fix up his car. He also helps Arthur (Dennis Kort), the partially-deaf student librarian, after the gang shove him around and tear apart the library. Appreciating his friend’s act of kindness, Mark tells David that “he is playing with fire.” David’s response? “You tell them the same thing.” None of this endears David at all to Mark’s buddies, though he is temporarily spared, for the time being, due to Mark’s pleading. The really heartbreaking thing about all this is Arthur telling David that he is “breaking a long school tradition.” There’s the really terrifying thing, the fact that bullies are not just a school institutional trope but in fact can be a multi-generational culture.
Things continue to fester, with Paul, Craig and Bruce, after observing Alice and Mary earlier in the film, calling them “dykes” and stating “that all they need is a couple of good fucks,” decide to “teach something” to the two unwilling girls, dragging them in an empty classroom. Mark meets with Theresa in the parking lot while this going on. He gets pissy with Theresa’s lack of being social and suggests that maybe she would rather go “party” with the boys, just like her friends Alice and Mary. Sensing something is foul, she immediately goes on the run, looking for the girls. She manages to find them and starts chastising the boys, with things escalating from verbal to physical. One the bullies ends up restraining her, while the other two are still trying to execute the rape. Hearing commotion, David bursts in and efficiently pummels the three attackers, before anything can get even worse. Theresa runs off and Alice and Mary, looking stunned, turn down his offer of a ride home.
Worried, he follows Theresa, who is at first disturbed by his violent actions, but ends up being glad that he stood up to the terrors of the school. They go down to the beach where David reveals that he has a lot of inner rage, stating that “anger just builds up inside.” But his fix for it is going for a run. Meanwhile, Bruce, Craig and Paul are beaten and foaming at the mouth for some revenge. Mark tries to save things, stating that if David was able to single-handedly kick their collective asses, that he could be a good ally. Grudgingly they agree, but only if Mark can talk some sense into him. Seeing David’s jeep near the beach, he goes down there only to see his friend and girlfriend skinny dipping in the ocean. Hurt, he goes back to his “friends” and lies, saying that David said no. Being the complete coward that he is, Mark all but okays their retaliation, just as long as he is not directly involved.
The result is the gang harass David while he is working on Rodney’s car. One of them kicks the carjack in, propelling the blunt force of the car onto one of his knees. The “accident” ends up leaving David with a permanent limp and having him return to school looking like a veteran of the psychic war. What ends up resulting is a series of violence that turns out in ways that are both expected and completely unexpected, with the ending leaving you with the a taste of one grim Lord of the Flies meets La Ronde experience.
Massacre at Central High is one of the best films about high school life and what happens when no one looks out for the students. It is absolutely telling that you do not see one adult in the whole film until the climax at the school dance. Even then the adults are just there, as ineffectual in presence as they were absent. Which is part of the real life problem with bullying is that the adults that should be there to help guide, educate and protect students either turn a blind eye, especially if it’s just a “boys will be boys” kind of situation or even worse, aid and abet it. (I actually had a teacher in junior high snicker as some kids picked on this one boy who was both dirt poor and developmentally disabled. Sartre said hell is other people, but I would argue that junior high is right next to it.)
The film is almost forty years old and yet all the same problems are there. The only real difference is if Massacre at Central High was made nowadays, one of the bullies would be shooting video of their various attacks on their cell phones and uploading it to YouTube and Twitter. The ghosts of Steubenville are still omnipresent and bully culture thrives long and strong.
One of the many smart moves that director Daalder made with this film is that the reactionary violence is neither condemned nor endorsed. It is there, all for you as a viewer to soak in and process and think about. With a film like this, cliché and heavy-handedness would be the easiest twain approach but Daalder skillfully avoids both. The only real misstep is the awful MOR theme song which sounds like something David Soul would have expectorated out. No surprise that this was a powers-that-be decision, reportedly making Daadler not being able to stomach seeing his own film for three decades. The film is too solid to be ruined by such a trite song, but it is bad enough to where one can completely sympathize with the director.
The fracas with the music was only the beginning, between a weird print of the film being released as Sexy Jeans (?!?) in Italy with hardcore inserts that are visibly not the actual actors and the fact that the film remains unreleased on either DVD or Blu Ray in America. (Though cross your fingers, since there is word that Cult Epics, who have also released Daalder’s incredible apocalyptic, post-punk musical Population 1 as well as his more recent feature, Hysteria, are prepping to release it later this year.) There was a DVD release in the United Kingdom with the cover art looking like something out of a bargain basement slasher film, which is beyond misleading.
Further proof of the film’s punch is that while it was originally scheduled to air on Turner Classics Movies “Underground” segment back in 2009, it ended up getting pulled, reportedly due to it being excessively violent. While there is undoubtedly violence in the film, it is no more brutal than some of the other films that have gone on to air on “Underground,” including Blue Velvet and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gore classic, Blood Feast. One cannot help but suspect that the subject of school related violence has made this film more taboo now than it was back when it was theatrically released. And it’s a taboo that needs to be broken, not just because this is a smart, strong film, which it is to the nth degree, but also because the less we communicate as a culture, the more we are damned to repeat what hurts us. Art is considered a mirror for a very good reason. Massacre at Central High is one of those reasons.