Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Massacre at Central High


Assemble a group of 2 or more individuals and you've got politics. It is unavoidable. Someone is always seeking to have dominion, to rule or govern over someone else, inadvertantly or otherwise. On a grander scale, it might involve an insane despot keeping his countrymen in a grip of tyranny or simply a 3rd grade playground bully, threatening you and demanding your lunch money. We've all been there, perhaps on both sides. It is especially traumatic in grammar school.

By high school, the social orders are formed with frightening organization. Your (not always chosen) clique usually has specific criteria for physical appearance, wealth, athletic ability, intelligence, religious faith, and even alcohol willingness and tolerance. The elites are usually the physically attractive and strong. Their power is often fed by their belittlement of the weaker students. But what would happen if the elites were wiped out? Would the political beast grow another head in its place?

The 1976 pic MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH has a most interesting and thoughtful blueprint. What if a new kid shows up at a high school, sees the geeks terrorized by the Adonises, then decides to "correct" the situation? David (Derrel Maury) is the new kid, a quiet type with average features who reunites with his old friend Mark (Andrew Stevens), a BMOC. The pair have a history: David once helped Mark out of an unspecified jam in another school.

David quickly notes the pecking order as the preppie thugs push around the chubby kids, the nerds, punks, and assorted misfits. Not just your usual shoving and name calling. Vandalism and attempted rape are common for these well scrubbed junior fascists. One fateful day, David is in the right place at the right time and prevents the would-be rapists from carrying out their plans in a classroom.

Bruce, Craig, and Paul are the bad guys with the cool hair. Mark is friends with them as well, and the trio, knowing of Mark's friendship with David, warns Mark to tell his bud to cool it. Mark meets with David and tells him that high school life can be like that of a country club if he just looks the other way when bad things happen. David is bound to no one's normatives. He remains bothered by what he sees as injustice.

Eventually, the trio corners David and cripple him (they kick the jack out from under a car he is working on). David will proceed to off each of these well-dressed scum in creative and violent ways involving empty swimming pools, runaway hang gliders, etc. With them out of the way, life at school becomes idyllic, for a time. The tormentors have been eliminated. But eventually the formerly oppressed will become oppressors;, the geeks will find their own victims. Is it human (sin) nature? David again watches, his vigilante tendencies again aroused......

MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH is the sort of neglected 70s item that you might find, these days, on an old VHS in a Goodwill store. Even when videocassettes were still the norm, this movie was a bargain basement title, at best. It has not endured as some lost classic, even though an Internet search will lead you to some loyal fansites. I can't really recommend it, as it is a clumsy, poorly produced, directed, edited, and acted film. Just like so many other so-called drive-in films of its era.

But you look at the original ideas of MASSACRE: not just a story of revenge, a satisfying eye-for-an-eye tale that ends with a tight shot on the former victim right after he or she evens the score. There are indications that this film wanted to examine the toxic cycle of vengeance, the danger of playing god. That's what David does, alright. He believes in justice, an old school code of "you get what you give". He feels the need to right the wrongs by destroying those who would terrorize and belittle someone incapable of defending themselves. We spoke of "utopia" in another entry. It cannot exist because of...ourselves. Our self-destructive and greedy hearts will always seek self-preservation. David conversely sees himself above the fray, removed from the sheep of the world, and believes his role to be Engineer. In the end, he will exercise his own power to right another wrong: himself.

All of this sounds different than your average teen horror flick, but distressingly, it plays as badly as any other. Director Rene Daalder penned a thoughtful script, and then promptly filmed it with no regard to pacing or subtlety. Maybe all the T & A was included to get the picture made,to wring the dollars from all those undiscriminating kids who'll hang the speakers on the doors and only pay half attention to the movie anyway. The editing in the film is especially bad: it jumps crudely from scene to scene, eliminating the power of the drama of the murders of several of the characters. It's all presented like a commercial. We're rushed through like consumers at an all-you can eat buffet. Sounds like a film of today, huh? So much to ponder, so many themes, but you'll have to wait until the film is over to digest.

It may also sound like a later film called HEATHERS, which rather liberally lifted plot points from MASSACRE. The latter film was quite a bit better, wisely utilizing a dark sense of humor to tell its tale. MASSACRE is humorless, but its straight-faced narrative does provide lots of unintentional laughs. To both films' credits, a conscience snakes through the lurid events. We're not just presented with colorful murder porn (like perhaps the later HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME or certainly any of the vile FACES OF DEATH series), but rather examinations of this most terrible of cycles.

I was also reminded of DIRTY HARRY and all of the criticism of its alleged facism. David is kinda like Clint Eastwood's character, at least in theory. David takes things much further, of course, a bit like those vigilante cops in the HARRY sequel, MAGNUM FORCE (which seemed like the filmmakers' answer to the critics of the first film).

I have a particular fondness for 70s films, good or bad. I've been delightfully surprised when the expected "bad movie night" brings forth something more ambitious (SMILE, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, others). MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH has very ambitious intentions but is hampered by its shoddy presentation. The fault all seems to lie with the direction and editing, kinda crucial for a flm's success. But the acting is quite giggle-inducing, too. In addition, the theme song "Crossroads of Your Life" is one of the most hysterically awful songs ever recorded. Its MOR stylings and unbelievably cheesy lyrics completely undermine the tone the film was attempting (and it plays during both the opening and closing credits!). I wish I could find a link for you. Actually, you're better off.
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