One of the big announcements from Vinegar Syndrome last year came as they were prepping for their big Black Friday Sale. This sale is big time stuff for people who are in more forgotten, deep cut horror and sleaze. They like to make sure they have one big title they can bring people to the site for. It makes sense, right? Your biggest event of the year, you better have something big to make it worth while.
Well, the movie they were putting all their hopes on to get that attention for their event is what I’m gonna talk about today – 1988’s Cutting Class. By all accounts, this is a tongue-in-cheek take on the common tropes of 80s slashers. It’s self-aware while not claiming to be a comedy. It came out at an interesting time too… 1988 is getting pretty late in the popularity of the horror subgenre that is the slasher. It’s not long before the 90s came in and effectively killed the “dumb kids doing dumb things and get murdered by some guy with a schtick” vibe of the routine, but fun, weekend video store rental.
What’s more, this movie happens to star a super massive, giant, Hollywood celebrity…
Nah, I’m just kidding. Martin Mull.
Nah, I’m yankin’ your chain. It’s Brad Pitt. This was his first leading man role in a movie. In fact, he’d only really been hanging around movie sets for about a year doing some extra work, getting in on some TV shows, paying his dues. He’s only a few years away from making all the ladies cream their Jordaches in Thelma and Louise. He’s less than a decade away from being nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. He’d later win an Oscar for being a producer on 12 Years a Slave. Just think… Give him another movie with 12 in the title, and he’s surely gonna get at least a nomination from the Academy.
Mofo is so big, I go to look up his IMDB to check the above stats, and goddammit if that talk glass of hunk ain’t staring me down and saying, “Yeah… I knew you’d come here to check me out.”
I dunno what’s weirder – him watching me look him up, or my pants getting suddenly tighter realizing he’s watching me look him up.
Basically, this movie is all about Paula, played by Jill Schoelen. She’s none-too-shabby in her 80s resume having been in the Robert Englund Phantom of the Opera, Popcorn, The Stepfather, Babes in Toyland (with internet darling Keanu Reeves – though I ALWAYS had to do a double take to make sure she wasn’t Phoebe Cates), and Rich Girl. These are the VHS boxes of my childhood, dear readers. Anyway, she’s doing pretty swell in high school. She’s class president, she’s dating Brad Pitt, everything’s coming up Milhouse for her. Yet, when Brian (Donovan Leitch who was in the remake of The Blob) is released from the asylum after doing some time for killing people, things get pretty goofy pretty fast.
The movie starts in one of those bitchin’ Steven Spielberg neighborhoods with a row of houses along a suburban California road with empty plots ready to add more tract housing the moment anyone decides that Reaganomics has made them so much fucking money they just gotta get away from brown and black folks in the city (OOOOH SICK BURN ON 30 YEAR OLD ECONOMIC POLICY). We see a paperboy delivering the day’s news. One paper falls in the driveway of the Carson residence. Paula is so dead set on getting that news for the morning, she’s willing to go out there without pants.
My kind of girl.
Anyway, Martin Mull is Paula’s dad and he’s dressed up like Elmer Fudd to go on a hunting trip for the week. When she tosses away the newspaper so her daddy doesn’t see it and get angry about something going on in the world, there’s a story about a guy who killed his father being released from the mental hospital that day. Not exactly sure why that is front page news, even in a small town, but whatever. Martin Mull arrives in the swampy ponds to hunt mallards and finds himself hunted instead as a mysterious archer shoots him with an arrow.
What’s kind of brushed over at the moment is that Paula’s father is a district attorney. Just put that info in your back pocket.
At school, Paula gets noticed by Brian Wood which doesn’t sit too well with ol’ Dwight (Brad motherfuckin’ Pitt). Paula also notices in gym class that there’s an odd leaf stuck in the feather of an arrow that looks an awful lot like the ones used by Martin Mull’s attempted killer. After realizing Brian is checking out his girl, Dwight fucks with a rope Brian is climbing causing him to fall and get in trouble by the gym teacher. What a joke, right? Just because Dwight is Brad Pitt, that doesn’t mean that goofball Brian should get in trouble for falling off a rope that Dwight is at fault for. Jeez… Must be sweet to be good looking and popular.
The rivalry between Dwight and Brian erupts further when Brian buys Paula a hot dog at the hot dog stand hangout. Brian says Dwight has nothing more to be scared of and that he went to the hospital and is better. Dwight doesn’t buy it and basically gives the ultimatum to leave Paula and him alone. They drive off, but Paula seems sympathetic to Brian, even when her girlfriend, Colleen, was calling him names.
After getting back to Paula’s home, Dwight does some creepy shit by putting on one of Martin Mull’s suits, lounges in bed as if to offer himself to Paula, and then says he’s got a bigger dick than Martin Mull. 1) that’s weird. 2) that is not true. We all know Martin Mull had a huge hog. That’s common knowledge, Brad.
The next day, Dwight is quite jealous about Paula being the live model for art class. It’s not like she’s naked – even in the 80s, high schools didn’t have nude models. Besides, she’s just wearing a leotard. When Brian reveals he is watching on, the teacher puts them in a precarious position posing with each other which gives her the squishies in her lady bits and Brian the stiffness in the bone.
Speaking… Jill Schoelen is smoking hot in this. Even as the good girl with mostly conservative clothing…
Ahem… Well. God fucking damn, Paula!
Alright, so that upskirt look was thanks to good ol’ Principal Dante. He’s a pervert because… sure. He invited Paula to his office to give her a cheerleader uniform. The uniform is on the floor and has to be picked up, but she doesn’t just kneel down to get it. She bends over… Oh whatever. I love this movie.
Later, an unseen assailant locks the art teacher in the walk-in kiln and bakes his ass alive. Dwight wants to spend time with Paula but she says she needs to do homework so he kind of acts like an asshole even telling her he doesn’t get mad, he gets even. That night, Paula is working on her homework when Dwight, Colleen, and Gary come by drunk and asks for a key to the principal’s office. Against her wishes, Paula gets dragged along as they sneak into the school and around the janitor. Naturally, what Dwight wants is to look at Brian’s files to see just how nutty he is and what ammunition Dwight can get to mess with the kid further.
With the info from the files, Dwight, Gary, and Colleen passes the info around to make fun of Brian. Also, as it turns out, Martin Mull is not yet dead, but as he cries for help, his daughter’s science class just keeps moving. That makes me realize something kind of funny… Martin Mull was planning on going away for a week, and then camping to do some hunting… Which seems to be on the campus of the high school his daughter goes to?
That’s… actually really funny.
At the big basketball game, Dwight is gonna be watched by a college recruiter for a big scholarship, but he ends up being ejected from the game when he makes a mistake and then fights with the other team. This causes the college recruiter to leave and refuse to give him a scholarship. His dad roughs him up a bit in front of the whole school and Dwight leaves the gymnasium dejected and embarrassed. In the waning moments of the game, Gary is killed under the bleachers in front of Colleen who was going to go down there for a quickie I guess. After the game, Dwight and Paula make out a little bit, but creepy Brian looks on frustrated and angry.
The next day, seemingly Dwight and Brian rekindle a little bit of their friendship as they remember a time they worked on Brian’s dad’s car and didn’t replace a part they took off. It seems Brian always had a rough upbringing and had tendencies to hurt his dad. More unfortunate situations befall Brian. He stands up for Dwight in their math class when the teacher rails on Dwight. When they go to the principal’s office, Brian learns that nearly every one of his teachers claim he is a disrespectful, disruptive problem, which he really isn’t. He’s basically being shunned for having a past.
I think this is a good time to discuss the red herrings of the movie. The slasher is shot in more of a giallo style where you never really see who it is. I think Brian’s past and his general creepiness is immediately set up to make him the obvious number one suspect. The people who have been attacked thus far, Martin Mull, the art teacher, Gary, and the principal’s assistant who hands out punishment to both Dwight and Brian, all have a part to play in Brian’s troubles – however slight or heavy it might be. However, there’s a crazy janitor who pretty much hates all the kids and Dwight in particular who even tells him, “I’ll be the only teacher you’ll remember!” and “I’m the custodian of your future!” The second of those comments being one of the more spot on gags of the movie.
But then there’s Dwight himself. He’s a crazy asshole who is entitled and clearly sexually frustrated because he just wants some of that Paula trim but she’s too busy with studying and being a good girl despite her sexy, sexy face, body, and everything. He’s laid down some clues that he may not be pleased with how her dad constantly pushes her to work on school stuff. His dad embarrassed him in front of everyone. He’s jealous as all get out. He’s just a turd. The only guy who’s been attacked that I can’t find a real reason why Dwight would do it is Gary. Whatever it is, these are your herrings of the movie. Normal tropes would be that Dwight has been given enough motive with Brian simply just being too easy to pin it on. I’ve basically thought since about the five minute mark in this movie that Dwight is our serial killer.
Shit hits the fan when Paula finds the body of the last victim. Dwight immediately fingers Brian as the killer and he runs off into the woods with the police following close behind. The cops release the dogs to try to track down Brian. One dog finds Martin Mull, but it doesn’t obey Mull’s commands to get help.
When the lady was killed after suspending Brian and disciplining Dwight earlier in the day, she was killed by being smooshed up against the window of the photo copy machine. When the janitor throws away a bunch of the images that came out of the crime (a practice I am POSITIVE is destruction of evidence), Brian is hiding in the dumpster and comes across an image that has a very important clue in it…
Throughout the whole movie, Paula has been asking for Dwight’s family ring as a sign of his devotion to her. In one of the pictures, the ring can be seen. Brian takes the image and appears to be heading to Paula’s to prove Dwight is the killer. However, while she is looking for something in her father’s bookcase, she discovers some of his case notes and a recording he made of his practice closing statements about how vile Brian is and how he will do whatever he can to lock him up forever.
Not only that… But she learns that a friend taught him how to cut the brake lines in his father’s car the day his dad died. She knows it was likely Dwight who taught Brian that. On top of that, things start to spiral for Dwight. He shows up to gym class but he isn’t in his gym clothes and gets into an argument with the teacher. He very nearly decides to shoot the teacher with a bow and arrow but is cooled off by Paula. Later, Paula is at home, and he shows up drunk. She tells him to go home and sleep it off.
After Dwight leaves, Brian sneaks into Paula’s house and confronts her while she is bathing. He begs for her help saying he didn’t kill the vice principal and he needs her to help him clear his name. She doesn’t believe him and tries to grab a pair of scissors to defend herself, but he snatches them first. He gives her the scissors saying if she doesn’t believe him, she should just kill him now because otherwise it will be his word against everyone else’s.
He tells her about killing his father, but she also tells him about the art teacher, Colleen, and Gary being missing. Naturally he thinks they will pin those on him as well. Dwight calls up drunk and she asks Brian to help him. Brian is all like, “No.” because, you know, he says he already has sacrificed himself for Dwight once. He won’t do it again. He shows Paula the photo with the ring on it and she recognizes it as Dwight’s ring.
The next morning, Dwight tells the gym teacher to go fuck himself when he shows up for a makeup class. He goes to get dressed and says he’ll be right back. While he dresses, the teacher does some super fun time jumps on the trampoline. The killer sticks the flag pole under the trampoline and impales him. While Paula hides from the janitor who is chasing her and Brian, who’ve split up, she finds Colleen and Gary’s bodies. She sees Dwight and runs from him running into her math teacher who helps her hide from Dwight.
They run from room to room being chased by the killer activating the announcements speakers in each room and playing music. They are led to a room with a math problem and two doors to choose from. The correct answer allows them to leave. The wrong answer, and they will die. The teacher, after claiming he is not prepared, chooses door 1. Brian is there with an ax and kills the teacher.
So Brian is the killer. Sigh. This is kind of super disappointing. This basically is a revenge plot movie. Yeah, he killed his dad. He doesn’t deny he flat out murdered him. He also said he never loved his father so he didn’t have an issue with killing him. Okay, that lines up in one sense that he is without empathy or emotion, etc. However, this… This comes down to him wanting to kill Paula because her father was doing his job. He claims his job is to be a murderer so… He’s gotta do his job and it’s nothing personal.
Nothing personal? He’s just doing his job? Like her father was? Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s crazy. Sure. Okay, but I’m not seeing much here that makes a great deal of sense. This smacks of a rewrite. For some reason, someone didn’t like the idea of Dwight being a killer. They didn’t even like the idea of the janitor being the killer. It was almost determined before the movie started that the crazy kid is the killer. So fuck you, kids! You do a thing when you’re young, you are always that thing!
Swell message, movie.
Brian chases Dwight and Paula into the auto shop class. Brian gets the upper hand and says he can teach Dwight to be a killer. After all, he’s got all it takes to be a killer, he just hasn’t done it yet. When he gets Dwight’s head in a vice and turns on a drill that is creeping closer to him, Paula relents and says she will do anything he wants. So she starts unbuttoning her shirt and tells him to close his eyes. Like a horny dumbass, he does, so she sticks the claw hammer into his head and then gets pushed back onto some machinery that kills Brian.
Oh, and that thing with Dwight’s ring? Yeah, when everyone found the vice principal’s body, a photo copy was made when Dwight was trying to help the teacher and put his hands on either side of her head. So all’s well. Martin Mull comes back into neighborhood and tries to flag down Dwight’s car. Paula is talking about all the crazy shit Brian said about killing in the past, present and future, and that’s when Dwight realizes his brake line was cut, but they don’t end up dying or killing Martin Mull. Martin Mull asks Paula if she should be in school and asks if she is cutting class…
It should be said that this is actually a fun little slasher flick. It is not without its problems. I like how there is a tongue in cheek feel with the ancillary characters like the lecherous principal, the dickwad friend, the snooty girlfriend, the janitor who just hates kids, and the tough-as-nails vice principal lady. Those are played a little more as jokey tropes of teen comedies of the 80s. The red herrings are pretty common for slashers that don’t star Jason, Freddy, or Michael. The Martin Mull character is the one character that feels the most out of place because he seriously is nothing more than a shambling joke from the first moment you see him until the final freeze frame. It almost feels like the only way he fits into this movie is if the other stuff is turned up on the comedy.
Aside from that, the final act is pretty cool up until the reveal of the killer. It would make more sense for Dwight to have snapped under the pressure of this basketball scholarship. When he is embarrassed or fails, he is overcome with the urge to kill. For it to have been Brian all along is anti-climatic. But then again, it’s almost perfect too. The trope is for the killer to be the person the lead character least suspects. So this subverts that trope, but… Blech. It doesn’t work for me. It might for some, but for me, I didn’t get what I wanted, though I will not claim I don’t understand the reason for it to have been Brian all along.
Next week, I have a strange little college thriller that is a little sci-fi, a little horror, a little zombie, and pretty much mostly dumb. Come back in 7 for Brain Twisters!