Never underestimate the subversive potential of the exploitation movie.
The savvier filmmakers operating in this backwater of the film industry were quick to recognize that as long as they delivered the good expected by audiences and producers – sex, violence and any other exploitable content that the major studios shied away from – they had the freedom to work in any other ideas or themes they wanted to explore. For example, consider how Wes Craven pondered the thin line between civilization and savagery in his first few films or how Stephanie Rothman used sexploitation as a vehicle to explore feminist ideas.
One of Schlockmania’s favorite examples in this arena is Massacre At Central High. Rene Daalder, a Dutch artist proficient in film and music, was approached by some Chicago-based film distributors with a title, a modest budget and the expectation that he deliver a body count of nine teenagers within the storyline. Daalder obeyed their dictates, including the exploitable sex and violence, but the film that resulted is no mere drive-in quickie. You might say it’s one of the most politically provocative and strangely thoughtful films to emerge from its era, exploitation or otherwise.
The premise starts in familiar teen movie territory: David (Derrel Maury) transfers to Central High, where he is reunited with old pal Mark (Andrew Stevens). Mark wants to grandfather David into the school’s ruling class but David bristles at the bullying tactics of Bruce (Ray Underwood), who keeps the other students in fear with fellow brutes Craig (Steve Bond) and Paul (Damon Douglas). The movie shifts into darker terrain when David befriends the bullied students and fights Bruce’s gang when they go too far – only for them to strike back in a manner that cripples one of his legs.
At this point, David decides to take revenge in his own sly, lethal manner against his arrogant tormentors… and that’s where the story diverges from expectations. David prevails over his rivals only to discover that the former victims now aspire to rule the school the way Bruce and his gang once did. David decides to resume his tactics against the aspiring bullies. The only ones left to oppose him are Mark and Theresa (Kimberley Beck), an intelligent and pacifistic student dating Mark. A clash between these two sides is inevitable but, like the story that has preceded it, the conflict will play out in an unexpected way.
That synopsis might sound ambitious and unusual but it can’t prepare you for the film itself. Daalder lays out the story in a way that is best described as a kind of straight-faced surrealism: he sets the tone with his opening titles sequence, which offsets peaceful footage of David jogging in the countryside and a middle-of-the-road ballad theme song with snippets of action to come, including fights and explosions. Once the story begins, Daalder makes the unorthodox choice of keeping all adults offscreen until the final sequence, thus creating the feeling we’re watching a parallel universe where the teenage years are the last time one truly exists before submitting to the death-like purgatory of adulthood.
As the film progresses, it has the conflicts and beats of sex and violence one expects but rules of conventional plausibility or cause and effect don’t apply. The reason for this is that Daalder has used his premise to explore ideas about politics and oppression (note: Danny Peary wrote a brilliant critical essay about this film in Cult Movies 2 that lays out a compelling take on the film as a political allegory).
Repeat viewings reveal that Daalder is using each character as a symbol: David is the revolutionary, Bruce and his gang represent fascism, other characters represent societal dropouts, the oppressed, the proletariat, etc. If you read the film in this way, you’ll discover just how thorough and meticulous Daalder is in laying out his concepts: each character choice or event that seems odd is put there for the purpose of exploring these themes.
The most interesting aspect of Massacre At Central High‘s political angle is that it leaves the audience room to process its ideas for themselves. As the narrative plays out, Daalder toys with our concept of a movie having someone to root for and someone to root against. Ultimately, it never really tries to tell us who is right or where our sympathies belong. Instead, it presents us with both the dangers of repression and the dangers of radical rebellion in equal measure. The consistent idea that runs through it is that one simply can’t sit on the sidelines. We all must make our stand at some point – and Daalder gives the viewer the freedom to decide where that should be and what for.
Daalder’s intellectual ambitions play well because he doesn’t forget they must be wrapped in an entertaining film. As befits a low-budget filmmaker working in genre territory, he doesn’t waste time: the story is laid out in a way that builds the conflicts quickly and layers in the expected action and salacious elements throughout the running time. When it’s time for a setpiece, he stages them with minimalist style: a sequence involving a van and a steep hill is particularly effective in drawing you into its gut-wrenching tension.
He also cast his film quite well and gets strong performances from his leads. Stevens handles a complex role with skill, making us understand the reasoning behind his indecisiveness without making him seem weak, and Beck brings a quiet intelligence and depth to an intriguing characterization that is more than the usual girlfriend character. Underwood is also noteworthy as the head of the mean dude squad, playing the role with the kind of smarmy charisma that James Spader would bring to similar roles in ’80s teen movies, and fans of the genre will be amused by seeing Robert Carradine and drive-in queen Rainbeaux Smith as a couple of post-hippie burnouts.
That said, the film belongs to Maury: he was better known for comedic t.v. work but he dazzles with an icy intensity here as an idealist who gives in to his darker side. In places, he might remind you of a young Lee Van Cleef, particularly when he narrows his gaze.
On the technical side, Bertram Van Munster’s cinematography is really impressive: he does excellent work using natural lighting and minimal artifice to create an ironically alluring backdrop for the story’s dark twists and turns. The fact that it has that late ’70s glow that defined the best Crown International Pictures teensploitation fare just enhances the subversive relationship between content and intent going on here. Even the easy listening theme song and t.v.-style scoring assist here: Daalder resented the music as it was forced on him by the producer but once again, there’s a potent sense of irony in how it creates an initially idyllic mood that the story quickly curdles.
In short, Massacre At Central High remains a testament to the subversive potential of the exploitation film. You get so much more here than the title promises – and those who can appreciation drive-in movies and arthouse fare in equal measure should rediscover it.
Blu-Ray Notes: Synapse Films rescued this title from home video oblivion and released it in both steelbook and standard editions. Schlockmania will post a blu-ray review for the standard edition next week. Until then, rest assured that it has a gorgeous transfer and a worthwhile slate of extras.