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Cinema

Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Class of 1999 (1990) Blu Ray (Vestron Video/Lionsgate)

The future of education

This sci-fi thriller is set in America in 1999 (which was the near future at the time of release). Schools have become such hotbeds of gang violence that they are now cordoned off within so-called “Free Fire Zones”. One such institution is Kennedy High in Seattle, run by principal Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell). He decides to sign up for a high-tech project dreamed up by the distinctly unhinged Dr. Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach) which involves secretly placing a trio of humanlike robot teachers (played by Patrick Kilpatrick, Pam Grier and John P. Ryan) within the classrooms in order to dole out tough discipline when necessary.

Initially, their zero tolerance approach manages to subdue the unruly gangbangers. However, one of the pupils named Cody (Bradley Gregg) - a gang leader who is attempting to move on with his life - discovers that they are starting to resort to murder. Their victims include Cody’s drug-addicted brother Sonny (Darren E. Burrows). Thus, he decides to enlist the help of the principal’s daughter, Christie (Traci Lind), in order to get to the bottom of who these mysterious and dangerous new staff members really are and to put a stop to their reign of terror.

Watch a trailer:

Enjoyable magpie sci-fi trash

Although an ostensible sequel to director Mark L. Lester’s earlier Class of 1984 (1982), Class of 1999 bares little relation to it bar being set in another violent high school milieu. In fact, while the original was a standard vigilante flick involving a teacher fighting back against some villainous troublemaking pupils, this one turns the concept entirely on its head by making the young delinquents into the heroes of the story. It also borrows magpie-like from various other sci-fi hits which came out during the preceding years, including A Clockwork Orange (1971), Westworld (1973), Escape from New York (1981), 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982), The Terminator (1984) and RoboCop (1987).

To be honest, it’s all pretty trashy stuff, albeit made with enough competence and efficiency to at least be a better class of trash. The acting lacks nuance; most of the adolescent principals expend all of their efforts trying to sneer and look tough in the most one-note manner possible, whereas the performers playing the de facto villains of the piece (the three robot teachers plus the stereotypical mad scientist type Bob Forrest) cackle and mug their way through the proceedings pantomime-style. Surprisingly, two members of the latter camp are people who have clearly shown themselves to be capable of far better. Stacy Keach won acclaim during the 1970s for his roles in such films as Fat City (1972), whereas Pam Grier was one of the most iconic of Blaxploitation actors during the same decade and later made a memorable comeback in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). Still, at least they look like they genuinely enjoyed themselves here. Another past-their-prime name actor, Malcolm McDowell (spot the clearly deliberate nod to A Clockwork Orange), plays the school’s well-meaning headteacher. While he’s clearly slumming it, he still manages to be convincing enough in the part and thus, by default, gives the best performance in the film.

The action is decidedly violent but tends to jump awkwardly between streetwise grit and a more cartoony approach. At certain points, we are privy to grim scenes of drug use, bullying and attempted rape. At other moments, we get Arnold Schwarzenegger-style one-liners, robot-induced punishment spankings and a man getting semi-comedically torn in half by being pulled through a hole in the wall. By the end, when the robots shed their humanlike skin to reveal hidden flamethrowers, rocket launchers and drilling apparatus, we know we have reached the point of outright parody Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker style.

Class of 1999 (1990)

Nonetheless, if you just sit back and enjoy Class of 1999 as a comic book action gore-fest, it does what it does well enough. It rattles along at a decent pace and the stunts, pyrotechnics and practical effects are all adroitly-handled. Okay, so the climax features a really naff Terminator-style animatronic robot skeleton but, then again, that’s all part of the fun where this sort of 1980s/early 1990s straight-to-video fare is concerned. Basically, it’s the ideal “invite some friends round on a Saturday night and watch it with a few beers” movie. Nothing more, nothing less.

Runtime: 96 mins

Dir: Mark L. Lester

Script: Mark L. Lester, C. Courtney Joyner

Starring: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lind, Malcolm McDowell, Stacy Keach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Pam Grier, John P. Ryan, Darren E. Burrows, Joshua John Miller

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The restoration is okay. There are some white specks visible in the picture and the colours feel somewhat artificial. However, the latter is oddly appealing because it evokes the junk food feel of the 1980s/early 1990s video viewing experience remarkably well. The audio mix isn’t as clear as it might have been but it’s nothing too bad.

Extras

Audio Commentary with Producer/Director Mark L. Lester

Lester’s commentary track is intermittent but pretty good when he has something to say. He generally talks about the film’s production, cast and influences (such as A Clockwork Orange and Westworld). He reveals that the film was shot in Seattle, where it rained during almost every day of the shoot. Nonetheless, he made good use of various locations throughout the city - e.g. the gang neighbourhood shown early on was a derelict suburb on the outskirts of the city. He also saw Nine Inch Nails performing in a grunge bar in the city and decided to include some of their songs as background music.

While Class of 1999 has often been thought of as a cheap effort aimed at the home viewing market, it was in fact made on a then fairly sizeable budget of $8 million and was intended for a major theatrical release. However, the film’s production and distribution company Vestron went through major financial difficulties while it was being made. As a result, it only got into a limited number of cinemas.

Some aspects of real-life contemporary American gang warfare were worked into the script. For instance, the scenes where the robot teachers play the story’s two main rival gangs off against each other had a historical basis in urban police forces attempting to kill off the infamous Crips and Blood gangs via these same tactics.

At the end of the commentary, Lester talks about his involvement in a remake of Class of 1999’s predecessor Class of 1984 which combines elements of both films. While there’s no mention of this remake visible on IMDB, a quick Google search reveals that was announced as far back as 2012. As such, it’s hard to ascertain whether it will really see the light of day.

School Safety - Interviews with Director/Producer Mark L. Lester and Co-producer Eugene Mazzola

Lester and Mazzola discuss making the film. Lester says that he came up with the original idea after learning that parts of Los Angeles were controlled by gangs. He then gave C. Courtney Joyner a room in his house for a month in order to write the script. With unusual frankness, Mazzola reveals that he “aged about 10 years” due to the various on-set tensions which took place between different parts of the crew.

The albino wig and contact lenses that Stacy Keach sports during the film were the actor’s own idea. He persuaded an initially Mazzola to part with $3,000 for the wig by persuading him that it would make a big difference to his character.

New Rules - An Interview with Screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner

Self-proclaimed “1960s monster kid” Joyner gives a wildly enthusiastic interview here. He was hired by Mark L. Lester on the recommendation of Renny Harlin who directed his earlier script for Prison. He comes up with some interesting trivia about the film; for instance, if you look carefully then you can see a pre-fame Rose McGowan appearing as one of the background pupils. He also talks about the original proposition for the climax, whereby the three robots come together to form a giant spider-like monstrosity. However, such an idea would probably have required stop-motion at that time (which would have proven to be prohibitively expensive for the film’s budget).

CyberTeachers From Hell - Interviews with Special Effects Creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton

Allard and Stratton describe some of the elaborate effects seen in the film. They brought a lot of their own ideas to the table - such as the close-up shot of one of the robots pulling open their synthetic human mouth to reveal a mechanical skull underneath. Allard remembers his time working on the production as being “some of the most fun I’ve ever had”.

Future of Discipline - An Interview with Director of Photography Mark Irwin

This is the last and arguably the most interesting of the four interview featurettes. Irwin talks about the film’s camerawork (naturally) plus various other aspects of the production. In one of the film’s several A Clockwork Orange connections, he made use of the Arriflex IIC camera which was used by Stanley Kubrick. The futuristic cars which we see were American Motors Corporation models with pieces of Masonite board attached to them. One scene involving a huge explosion inside the high school location necessitated the film crew removing the roof of the building so that it blast could go up and out. However, since they were shooting around winter this proved to be problematic because it let the snow in.

Some trailers and a stills gallery round out the extras.

Overall:

While Class of 1999 isn’t a particularly great film, it is enjoyable if taken in the right spirit. The restoration is only adequate but the extras are well worth a dip.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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