Sincerest thanks to Mr. Ian A. Stuart for this interview.
Monday, December 12, 2011
A nighttime Halloween party. As children laugh, run and play in their costumes, one child clad in ghost sheets invites a boy and girl to come see the "bag of jewels" he's found in the nearby forest. We're shown via flashback that this gullible couple are bullies, and the ghost kid is apparently the target of their cruelty. As the male bully nears a bag placed precariously next to some sort of ditch, ghost kid sneaks up from behind and gently pushes the tricked bully down the hole and out of sight.
Abruptly, the swelling musical score to this scene cuts off in mid-note and flashing lightning accompanies two shots alternating back and forth: a moving teddy bear with glowing eyes and a deep hole full of some moving, hairy...things. The movie's title is superimposed, fading from yellow to red: THE PIT.
Persons experiencing confusion at this obtuse introduction, take heart. You're not missing anything. The film is, indeed, somewhat incompetently made and completely unsure as to what is its focus. There is a kid, and a pit full of things, and a teddy bear, but those seeking reasons or answers will be sorely disappointed.
The Pit is far and away one of the most baffling and intriguing titles from the exploitation independent era; an adolescent revenge fantasy (not uncommon to the genre) by way of fantastical fairy tale (there are monsters and a living doll) filtered through the uncomfortably sleazy eye of a hacky director whose primary concern seemed to be including as much gratuitous nudity as possible, or at least show his actresses doing aerobics or jogging.
Jamie (Sammy Snyders, fresh from playing Tom Sawyer on the TV series Huckleberry Finn and His Friends) is a young boy who just doesn't fit in. He also has an active imagination, not only having conversations with his teddy bear, but finding in the local woods a deep dark pit full of monsters. At first the viewer rationalizes that both aberrations are figments of a troubled boy's imagination, until the film shows us otherwise and Jamie begins to take revenge on local bullies and troublesome adults by tricking them into becoming the creatures' lunch. Meanwhile, Jamie's babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias, soon to become a successful voice actress in animation) is the only adult watching him while his parents are out of town, and in a recipe for disaster, she's Jamie's first crush.
The monsters at the bottom of the pit are believed by Jamie to be prehistoric troglodytes. These trogs are simply little people in fur costumes with immobile pig-like masks, and they're filmed with barely any regard to covering up the obvious shortcomings in makeup special effects. The burden of their effectiveness is left to the sound effects of their continual roars (which sound more like the MGM lion than primordial beasts) and the bombastic strings and horns of the musical score by Victor Davies.
Jamie's teddy bear "Teddy" speaks to him in Sammy Snyders' voice with an echo added, and Teddy seems to know a lot more about Jamie's stirrings of manhood than he does. Shoving people down the pit to feed the trogs is also Teddy's dea. What's more, Teddy is indeed alive. This is only confirmed by his glowing eyes at the opening title, and another shot twenty minutes into the film where the bear's head turns a few degrees and Victor Davies lays the music on extra thick to sell the shock.
Compounding the strange nature of all these story details is a wildly inconsistent tone by the director that veers back and forth from bombastic shock to daft whimsy. Which constantly begs the question, for what type of horror fan was the film intended? Even amongst the few examples of Bad Seed / Village of the Damned type horror films from this era about murderously mischievous tots, there are none so unique as this hallucinatory tale involving trogs, teddy bears and hormonal stirrings directed at babysitters.
My personal interest in The Pit began with a review published on the long running cult film website BadMovies.org. Like those reading about the film for the first time at this moment, my initial response to descriptions of such a strange film was incredulous. Knowing I'd need to see the movie for myself to believe it, I kept an eye out until eventually happening across the VHS at Hollywood Video. I sat down with a likeminded fan of the cinema du bizarro and the effect was even more bewildering than expected. How was this cheesy horror film ever constructed around such a singularly surreal story?
Many years later in a Toronto used bookstore, I happened upon the spine of a paperback entitled Teddy, by John Gault. Taking a look at the cover to pass judgment I was struck by the illustration of a child holding a teddy bear with demonic lights shining from its eyes, and a very familiar tagline. Then I looked at the back cover and almost fainted. Who else but the Teddy's unforgettable askew-eyed face was staring back at me?
Buying and reading the novel immediately, I found that John Gault's version of the story "based on an original screenplay" by Ian A. Stuart was an astonishingly different take on the same material. While the characters and events were all essentially the same, Gault set a tone of genuine eerie dread that the slapdash film never accomplished, as well as giving some much needed additional focus on the relationship between young Jamie and his evil toy. Gault's novel Teddy was The Pit as a serious horror story, and the disparity between the two made me all the more curious as to what went awry in the making of what had to have originally been intended to be a serious horror film.
The novel was published in Toronto. Still living there at the time, I attempted to locate Mr. John Gault in the hope that he could shed some light on the secret history of The Pit, having worked on his novel from the original screenplay. Unexpectedly, my efforts led to the contact information of the original screenwriter himself, Mr. Ian A. Stuart - whose initial vision was not only meant to be a serious chiller, but one that would have given the sexual undercurrent a very different context and ended with a twist to explain the fantastic elements of trogs and living dolls.
It is with great appreciation that I present the following interview with Ian A. Stuart, author of the original screenplay which became The Pit.
How did "The Pit" get produced?
The idea was originally to produce a Canadian-made horror picture on a relatively low budget with a simple story. I had written such a script, and it was purchased by Amulet Pictures. It was originally called "Teddy," but marketed as "The Pit" because that sounded more dramatic for a horror picture. The producer was Bennet Fode and the executive producer was the late Johnny F. Bassett, who used to own the Toronto Telegram. He was from the Bassett family who controlled the CTV television empire and he was in the film business for a short while as an executive producer.
Just as we were finished putting the pieces of the puzzle together to get the picture ready for production, either Bennet or Johnny Bassett hired Lew Lehman to direct. He was an American director - they were going to shoot in Wisconsin - so he was hired to do the job. Bassett later admitted that they had never seen anything he'd done previously.
It was never meant to be funny - except that we have a tendency to laugh at children who do amusing things. Jamie has a rather dark imagination, he's discovered a huge hole in the ground in the forest at the bottom of which live these things. He doesn't know what to call them but he's heard about cave dwelling early human beings called Troglodytes and mispronounces the word as "troglodies" - not the "tra-la-logs" we heard in the film, which was downright silly. He believes in their reality, and he tells the babysitter who's living with him about them. She of course doesn't believe him. Then as he becomes more insistent that they're real, she becomes more and more annoyed until one day she slaps him in the face, saying he has to stop this nonsense.
From that moment to the end of the film, nothing the audience sees is really happening. It's all in his mind. There's a hole in the forest, but there's nothing at the bottom of it. By slapping his face she's cut herself off from him. The creatures in his imagination dispose of her. She falls into the pit accidentally, at least in his mind, because he couldn't have pushed her. That would be an act of agression. It had to be an accident.
Only at the end of the film do you see a psychiatrist saying, "This boy is very disturbed." The camera pans over and wait a minute, there's the babysitter. She's not dead, this has all been in his mind. So he's taken out into the country to the grandparents, where he meets a little girl and she takes him out in the woods and says "Look what I found, a big hole in the ground where these little creatures live." He says they're troglodies, and she says "I know," and push! He goes down the hole. The audience should walk out of the theater wondering, what just happened there? Was that real or unreal? He gets his just desserts, but in whose mind did it take place?
The traditional structure of a horror story isn't the novel, it's the short story that begins very realistically, introduces an element of the fantastic, and then has to wrap up relatively quickly. But the wrap-up is in the last phrase, the last sentence, even the last word, where the story really gives you a jolt. Jamie's institutionalized, goes out into the woods, meets this other child just like him who says "I want to show you something, I found a big hole in the ground and look what's at the bottom, troglodies!" He says they eat people, and she says "Yes, I know." Push! It's all in the last word. "Push."
From a literary genre point of view, the story is what you'd call the "Demon Child" story - an apparently innocent child who is actually demonic. That story has been told many times. This scenario came from a very real incident of a child's mental illness, described to me by a friend who's a child psychologist and knew a boy who'd draw creatures like Jamie's "troglodies" that he could send after people who did harm to him. This friend also told me, "I've had to sign commitment orders for children who are 8, 9 and 10 years old, who are not really children. They're little balls of hate and fury. And the only reason they haven't killed somebody yet is they're not big enough and strong enough. But, someday. Unless you deal with that problem, you have that next murderer, next rapist. That child who's full of hate and fury is going to react violently against the world."
I also had a ventriloquist friend who used to talk to an autistic boy using his dummy, the kid would talk to the dummy, but as far as he was concerned, my friend didn't exist. Putting those children's perceptions together gave me the idea for Jamie's particular circumstances in the film. John Bassett actually had the script read by another child psychiatrist who said it was the best depiction he had ever read of the mind a psychotic child. Then, after the film was made he came to me and said "I'm sorry, Ian. You wrote a great script, and all we've produced is Grade-B garbage."
When the decision was made that Teddy and the Trogs in the pit would be real, were you asked to write those changes?
No, Lew did whatever Lew did. When he came on board he sort of said "I'm here now, I'm in charge, I make the decisions, whatever has been done before this is the past and I'm taking charge of the project." So what you see is Lew's interpretation.
If the trogs were all in Jamie's imagination, were they originally meant to escape as they do in the film?
Yes, he has to let them out because he's run out of nasty people. He's not accepting the fact he's created his little creatures in his mind, so how does he manage to look after them? As their creator he has to look after them, so the only thing he can do is put a rope down and let them climb out and look after themselves. And because they're doing bad things to good people, it's out of Jamie's hands, he has to ask for help. The help comes in the form of the adults in the community getting together and destroying this evil that he created. But all this take place entirely in his mind.
Yes, he cannot get her out of his mind and feels responsible for her death even though it was accidental and imaginary.
How did you feel about the way Jamie was portrayed?
The difficulty with making the picture was that you needed a boy to play the lead role, who had to be a good actor and yet be only 8 or 9 years of age. So we found five boys through pretty extensive casting, any one of which could play the role, so that they could all be presented to the director to select one of them. He never interviewed even one of those boys. He started all over again and picked a boy who was 12 years old, looked 14, and was almost muscular. That was his choice to play the role, and this to me was a fundamental mistake. Because this was a story from the mind of a psychotic child and to make him older, put him in a situation where he has almost a romantic relationship with the babysitter rather than that of a child to a young woman, changed the whole nature of the film.
Jamie was meant to be played by a younger child, and when a child is 8 or 9 years old they're interested in the mechanics, how the plumbing works and they first get interested in sexuality, but they're not sure why they have the feelings they have. Jamie has some kind of feelings for his babysitter Sandy, and he peeks on her, because children's sexuality at that level is usually at the peeping and showing stage. A 9 year old relating to a teenage babysitter like that, he's intimidated because he wants to experience something that he's not sure what it is because he's still a child.
The minute you make that child 12, as happened in the film, you change that utterly. Now a relationship between the two of them is possible, and we've seen examples of that in the media. The film was changed all together because it's no longer slightly confused childhood curiosity in which he's trying to express feelings he doesn't quite understand. In the scene where she's giving him a bath, that's a very different bath from the bath you give a child.
If you say to a 12 year old, "I want you to play a 9 year old," it's almost impossible for them to do that, they can't remember what it was like to be themselves a few years ago. They're maturing so rapidly, pretending to be less mature is difficult. A 12 year old is closer to a 17 year old than a 9 year old. At one point he tricks a woman who's mean to him into undressing, to cause her embarrassment, thinking it's very funny. But that's typical of an 8 or 9 year old. When Jamie was cast older, the basis for the entire film was changed and instead of being sort of cute, what he's doing is a little bit sinister and creepy.
Age difference aside, how did you feel about Sammy Snyders' performance?
I thought Sammy did a pretty good job from his perspective of an older child.
During the bath scene, Jamie seems to make a reference to molestation by his mother, asking Sandy if he knows why his mother washes him so much. Was that your intention?
I don't remember this line, and there was never the slightest suggestion that his mother did this, so it may have been something Lew had Sammy insert.
How did you feel about the way the trogs in the pit were depicted?
I'm not the first one who's noted that something you imagine is more horrible than something you're shown. Almost every horror movie's anticipation of seeing the monster is blown out the window when the monster finally appears. Of course, modern special effects can produce something quite scary and realistic, but to put suits on dwarves and have them running around pretending to be monster - if you see that for long enough you begin to laugh. You've done the worst thing a horror movie can do, which is step over the line between fantasy and the ludicrous.
So making someone believe for a long time in monsters that are running around, if they're shadowy things that you can hardly see - little yellow eyes in the dark - something scuttling around in the leaves, this you can believe in because you don't know what it is and your mind creates the image. The minute it's staring you in the face, it's a dwarf in a suit. And their eyes were lights! They actually put lights behind their eyes. Unbelievable.
How did you feel about the way Teddy was depicted?
With the teddy bear it was pretty close to what was originally written. It just depends how effective you are with the special effect, how realistic is the teddy bear. If you think it's just a kid with a stuffed toy and the stuffed toy moves on its own, that should startle you and give you a little shiver up and down the spine.
Was there supposed to be as much nudity in the film as there is?
The inclusion of nude scenes was almost mandatory at the time to get an "R" rating which was presumed to be required for the commercial horror audience. Only in one scene was it really essential, when Jamie was peeping on Sandy in the shower, she wouldn't be wearing clothes. Probably the most ludicrous fact about the shoot was that the director's wife refused to let him shoot the nude scenes, so I had to shoot them. I was a director with several films to my credit so it wasn't technically difficult, but the only scene involving nudity the director was allowed to film was the "skinny dipping" scene because the actress he hired for the part was his daughter!
Have you read the novelization by John Gault, under your original title "Teddy"?
Yes, and it was good for what it was. I actually met with Gault, but the producer had me writing a completely different script at the time, he didn't want me to be bothered with the novelization. I was busy working on the next script while Lew was shooting and Gault was writing the book.
What are your thoughts on "The Pit" today?
People still contact me after seeing the film - which amazes me to no end - to say that although it wasn't a good film they felt there was something else going on under the surface. I tell them that's the thing the director should have got, but didn't get because he really didn't care. He just saw it as a job, making a Grade-B horror film. It could've been a better film, but enough of the original script remained, I'm happy to say, that some people are still talking about this long after the fact.
Sincerest thanks to Mr. Ian A. Stuart for this interview.
Sincerest thanks to Mr. Ian A. Stuart for this interview.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
For the supplementary interview with actor Robert Prichard
about the making of Class of Nuke 'Em High,
A friend of mine in New York City interned at Troma once. I was
talking to him then about how great The Toxic Avenger was and how Troma would never do anything that great again. He suggested that their immediate follow-up Class of Nuke 'Em High was probably just as good and mentioned it was actually his favorite. I saw Nuke 'Em High shortly thereafter and my enjoyment was fettered by the obviousness of Troma's attempt to create another Toxic Avenger: before the opening credits we see three distinctive cast members returning from Toxic in supporting roles, and a nerd's encounter with toxic waste leads him to dive out a window.
Seeing Nuke 'Em High now, I can understand my friend's preference. What this first post-Toxic Avenger Troma movie lacks in avant-garde shock value that was so abundant in Toxic, it makes up for in being a much better made film overall. Nuke 'Em High was made faster and cheaper but with the surefooted conviction that the filmmakers were onto something good - there's a sense of confidence and assuredness in the silliness that's disarmingly charming.
Class of Nuke 'Em High is not the most unique Troma movie ever made, but it may well be the best effort to synthesize the company's most appealing qualities as an exploitation film studio of the 1980s. Whereas The Toxic Avenger swung wildly between elements of sex, violence and comedy to jostle the audience's expectations, Nuke 'Em High juggles sex, violence and comedy in a way that's much more eager to entertain and please. I can actually imagine a hardcore fan of Toxic watching Nuke 'Em and feeling like Troma had already sold out, like a filthy punk rock band toning down their offensivene sound just enough for a deal with a major recording label. Nuke 'Em High has a lower budget and less graphic violence than its predecessor, but the energy is still going strong.
The biggest difference is the change of comic tone: the connective tissue between scenes of perverted school gangs terrorizing their classmates and special effects monster transformations is a reasonably normal teen sex comedy in which a virginal couple are urged to get it on by their wacky friends. These "normal" scenes are not only passable by genre standards, they're energetic and amusing on their own terms. The supporting Tromaville High Schoolers aren't secretly deranged like the health club bullies of Toxic, they're providing some normal-movie familiarity to contrast against the weirdness. The occasional normality is reinforced by the soundtrack, which is straightforward teenage butt-rock the way Toxic's soundtrack was comprised of cheerful pop tunes - except this time the contrast isn't ironic.
You get everything in this generous movie. The best possible momentum to continue from Toxic Avenger was combining such seemingly incongruous exploitation film gimmicks into one big gimmick and that's exactly what Nuke 'Em does. Later Troma films would instead attempt to ratchet up the weirdness of every detail, but Nuke 'Em simply mashes two or three kinds of genre film together and starts sculpting. The incongruity is briefly acknowledged and thereby smoothed out in a deft dialogue exchange following the opening credits. This exchange establishes the rules of the film and gets me excited for what's about to transpire in a way few other films ever have:
VIRGINAL GOOD GIRL PROTAGONIST:
"How do you explain all the weird things going on around here since the (nuclear) plant opened? Remember Mrs. Brooks losing all her hair and breaking out in those scuzzy looking sores overnight?"
WACKY SEX CRAZED FRIEND #2:
"She looked better that way!"
VIRGINAL GOOD GUY PROTAGONIST:
"Oh c'mon guys, look, I mean Chrissy has a point. A lot of people around here have been acting nuts!"
WACKY SEX CRAZED FRIEND #1:
There's no radiation around here! We're too far away from the power plant. At least a quarter of a mile. Besides, even if there was a little radiation around here...who gives a shit?"
At this point, unlike Toxic, you do know what you're getting into as a viewer. The film's dialogue has a snappy patter in its ridiculousness, and with four credited screenwriters it's easy to imagine them seated around a table throwing one-liners back and forth at each other. Haines (who conceived the story), Kaufman, and former Troma sexploitation comedy writer Stuart Strutin adds to the general air of freewheeling humor. There's a lack of hipness involved when adults write dialogue for high schoolers that only makes it funnier; they're free to be complete morons. Fat, wacky supporting character Eddie (James Nugent Vernon) gets most of the best stupid "teenager" lines, like the rejoinder "Gross, huh? You should've seen the girl I picked up in the video arcade Saturday! SHE was gross. What a hairy ASS!" Lines like that prove that Kaufman and crew still had the gonzo magic in them from the days of raunchy comedies at summer camps Troma was making just a few years earlier.
Despite the trashiness of their friends, Warren (Gil Brenton) and Chrissy (Janelle Brady) are so perfectly cast as the archetypal young All-American pure hearted high school sweethearts that you can't help liking their bland wholesomeness. They're like Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper to everyone else's Jughead, before eventually having to take on Mad Max.
All this giddy goofiness seeps out from the normal bounds of high school comedy and into Nuke 'Em High's feature attraction, the punk gang of drug dealers (whom we're told were all honor roll students until the radiation hit) known as The Cretins. Led by former Toxic health club bully Robert Prichard as "Spike," The Cretins are a really singular creation in the history of movie punks and juvenile delinquents that will never be equalled. Last year the monumental reference tome Destroy All Movies!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film was published, and one of the most pertinent observations from editors Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly was how punks would invariably be portrayed as either depraved criminals or total clowns. In Nuke 'Em High, they're both! Nuke 'Em was made right when a new kind of acceptance and / or indifference towards the whole "punk thing" was metastasizing into mass culture.
The cartoonish fashion choices of The Cretins were reportedly inspired by an exaggerated "punk" themed Asian fashion spread and are somewhat the distorted summation of punk's first run through pop culture's collective imagination. One Cretin of obvious Japanese design influence and bearer of the most elaborate makeup is Gonzo (Brad Dunker) who wears full blackface makeup, a giant nose ring and a mouthguard as buck teeth. Black people are such an oddity over there that blackface is a fashion statement called Ganguro. Troma was lucky to make this movie when they could still contrast this high fashion against the preppie 80s tastes of satin baseball jackets and tight fitting Levis, and we're lucky they made the film while Troma was still willing to cast normal looking extras.
These are the punk delinquents of a commercial culture in which no subculture is too scary to be eventually packaged, sold and defanged. The Cretins' dialogue is as rife with humor as the "normal" students. One early joke involves a Cretin's love of MTV: the fact no self-respecting punk would watch MTV (The Dead Kennedys sang "MTV Get Off The Air" in 1985) is an inadvertent insight to the fact that this formerly underground idea had entered the homogenization process. Admittedly there is one female Cretin who wears a Hitler mustache and combover - and while that look's not going to worm into the mainstream, it does reference the historical reality that British punks would wear Nazi regalia to frighten their elders. Nuke 'Em High's version of this Nazi-chic shock value actually lampoons the very idea itself of ignorant punks appropriating Hitler.
More importantly than their clothes, the gang's existential absurdity disconnects them from allusions to real life danger in some scenes before gradually escalating to the pantomime psychotic crime of Toxic Avenger. As high schoolers they don't kill anyone at school and most of their violence is of brutal yet bloodless Three Stooges variety. Unlike Toxic the extreme violence is much less mean spirited overall while retaining shock value more judiciously.
The costume design of The Cretins is essentially the most "punk" thing about them: they don't listen to music, their vernacular revolves around a cartoon version of drug pushing (selling radioactive marijuana, they excitedly call it an "Atomic High") and their appearance on the film's poster suggests a futuristic post-apocalypse setting more than anything resembling a real high school. Incidentally, according to Kaufman the sales for Nuke 'Em High were great because people kept stealing the tapes from their local VHS hut and store owners kept having to buy new copies. Punk rock, dude!
Nuke 'Em High's original title was Atomic High School before Lloyd Kaufman noticed how well the international home video sales were doing for Class of 1984 (1982). Mark Lester's story of a punk gang selling drugs at high school is an exploitation classic in it's own right, while actually taking seriously the premise of dangerous white suburban punks in our schools. Led by baby faced Vincent Van Patten, the gang of 1984 are utterly amoral, perverted and psychotic, reflecting the fearful view of punk rock kids initially taken by the American middle class. "I am the future!" shrieks Van Patten, and we in the audience are meant to feel a chill at the nihilistic narcissism that fuels these thrill-crazy youths.
Three or four years later, the bad kids at Tromaville High School are doing the exact same things and it's all a big joke. What a difference a few years of Beastie Boys videos and comparably elaborate heavy metal fashion in heavy rotation on MTV can make. Nuke 'Em High explodes about ten years' worth of societal paranoia about punks - and any self-importance still possessed by punks who like to scare old ladies - in a moment that blows a raspberry on Class of 1984. Temporarily detained for brawling in the bathroom with Warren, The Cretins mock their authority figures with an admonition directly into the camera: "We're the youth of today" says one, with deadpan Van Pattenesque menace.
Dangerous youth exploitation movies go back farther than the punk scene, at least as far as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and any drive-in feature in which beatniks on motorcycles would terrorize mom and pop storekeepers while hepped up on goofballs: I'm gonna carve up some losers with my switch-blade, daddy-o! Prefiguring Troma's eventual melding of ultra violence and sneering untamed youth, America's original "splatter movie" director Herschel Gordon Lewis actually made a youth-exploitation film called Just For The Hell Of It (1968) in which crazy teens run around committing senseless acts of hilarious cruelty like pushing old ladies into open manholes.
One of the sadder aspects in the death of exploitation cinema has been the loss of a safety valve for such cultural fears. During the heights of America's societal conflicts, exploitation filmmakers latched onto lightning rods of controversy in films like The Black Klansman or Wild in the Streets knowing that Hollywood wouldn't touch them. Later, after the grindhouses and drive-ins closed and after a decade (the 90s) of mainstreaming punk ethos into the lucrative brands of "grunge" and angry whiteboy posturing, two genuinely dissatisfied suburban teenage psychos put on black trenchcoats and shot up their school. All of society's cultural arbiters (MTV especially) fell over themselves to assume blame and promise less violence in the media. From that day on, violence in schools doesn't exist as far as the mainstream is concerned. Retroactively, Class of Nuke 'Em High is less politically correct today than when it was made.
While The Cretins never go on a school massacre per se, there's a cavalier attitude towards school violence in the film that would take a lot more courage today. As Principal Westly (Donald O'Toole, one of Mayor Belgoody's cronies in Toxic Avenger) is being held hostage, a staffer walks in and a mohawked Cretins' only response before shooting her is "Hey! Didn't anybody ever tell you to knock before entering a room?" It's like Larry Fine was a third shooter at Columbine.
Besides the colorful (literally) characters and dialogue, what makes Nuke 'Em High stand out among Troma's finest work is the rapid-fire editing of co-director Richard W. Haines. The curious part of Haines and Lloyd Kaufman's co-directing credit is that Haines apparently only directed the film's exciting ending before Kaufman stepped in and took over for reasons unknown. His sole directed sequence has Warren rescue Chrissy from The Cretins' leader Spike in the school basement, where they are all summarily chased by a humongous monster spawned from accumulated nuclear waste.
This is a real monster too, not just a buff burn victim like the "Monster Hero" of The Toxic Avenger. In order to make a ten foot slime mutant plausible onscreen, Haines has to cut around it from every angle nearly every second and does so brilliantly. In any other movie this would be annoying, in Nuke 'Em High it's a necessity which kicks the story's momentum into overdrive: after all the teenage hijinks and punk brawling, a monster on the loose is the one twist which could top everything. The creature rampages through the school and kills The Cretins before exploding and taking the school with him, all while never being seen completely from head to toe.
Haines' machine-gun editing makes the head-rippings work out in your mind just like the subliminal shower stabbings in Psycho, and the same goes for all the fighting or action scenes - it's incredible what he does with only a few angles and closeups. The Cretins' first major scene in which they carouse down the hallways of Tromaville High School to collect drug money from a hapless nerd is nothing less than a ballet of violence - the punks sucker punch innocent bystanders, smooch unsuspecting girls, flank Spike and set out a general air of intimidation all around them. As Spike approaches said nerd, Haines shows just enough of him walking towards the camera to turn him into a force of nature like the slime monster.
The slime monster's amazing origin is Nuke 'Em High's most subversive element in terms of leaving the audience's comfort zone like The Toxic Avenger did so frequently. This sophomore effort is more intent on being fast and fun but nonetheless takes a little time to get under your skin. After Warren and Chrissy unwittingly smoke some toxic marijuana which their friends bought from The Cretins, they become aroused and finally consummate their virginal relationship. Soon afterwards they begin experiencing other, less desirable side effects: hideous mutations like Warren becoming a super-strong vigilante and attacking some Cretins (like the nerd diving out the window, this is somewhat familiar) and in Chrissy's case, an instant mutant pregnancy. The image of her stomach ballooning out with a green tentacle writhing from her belly button is on par with any David Cronenberg "body horror" special effect, and several of his films like The Brood and The Fly involve fears of deformed pregnancies.
The monster is Warren and Chrissy's love child, something the characters never really acknowledge or are forced to come to grips with - it's not an intelligent being, it's an inhuman drooling beast to flee from. Despite removing the emotions, the story of Nuke 'Em does in it's own exploitative way include the problem of children with nuclear deformities - a real world horror from Hiroshima to Chernobyl. The birth of this creature from Chrissy's body surpasses even the gross-out body contamination anxieties of Toxic Avenger wherein Melvin the nerd lost all his hair and skin after taking a toxic bath: not feeling well during cheerleading practice ("Gimme an 'O' !" "OOOohhhh...") Chrissy runs to a bathroom stall and proceeds to puke up her mutant fetus into the toilet bowl, where it screeches at her. A couple scenes later another student finds it, freaks out and flushes it down the tubes to the high school's basement where it can rapidly grow into a man-eater just in time for the final act.
This ungodly mix of teenage pregnancy drama and monster movie hits all the right buttons. Who hasn't heard the one about the high schooler who didn't know she was pregnant and miscarried in the little girls' room? Who hasn't been warned about casual drug use and sex leading to an unwanted pregnancy for a young couple? There's only one clue that all this moral subtext about peer pressure was deliberate: when Chrissy's stomach balloons up the night she and Warren have sex, her friend's words echo in her head: "You can't get pregnant the first time...pregnant the first time...pregnant the first time..."
You'd think that amidst all the non-stop fun, any marginal social commentary would be directed more at the nuclear power industry than teenage promiscuity or drug use. There's a little at the beginning - the corrupt mayor from Toxic, Pat Ryan Jr, returns in a small part as the director of the nuclear plant which causes all the trouble - but I'm a lot harder pressed to say that Class of Nuke 'Em High is a statement against nuclear power. Nuclear power is the reason such awesome stuff keeps happening! Nuke 'Em High really doesn't really give a shit about anything in a way that even Toxic can't claim, because Toxic took the time between gory deaths and dumb jokes to include nonessential scenes where corporate, bureaucratic and labor elites conspired against the common man. The students of Tromaville High School are definitely little people falling victim to the runoff of industrialism, but it's just not as serious. Toxic's opening narration solemnly declares pollution "the unavoidable byproduct of today's society." A quick gag during Nuke 'Em High's opening credits sequence shows Eddie being slapped when a leaky basement pipe spews green slime on his girlfriend's stomach, causing a humorous misunderstanding.
Lloyd Kaufman's environmentalist and political leanings may have simply taken the back seat to Richard Haines' brilliant idea for a movie and the gags of the other writers. His credentials as a bleeding heart are bonafide: for years every Troma VHS played Kaufman's short film "The Radiation March" before the main feature, which is basically an interpretative dance number where children in leotards keel over from the deadly harm of pollution. The one-two punch of Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High put Kaufman in the odd position of having nuclear power be synonymous with his company's brand. I think that's why Troma's next "in-house" original production was Troma's War (1988) - a "war movie" with Kaufman's politics up front and center as little people band together against the dreaded elites. By the time Toxic Avenger Part II came out in 1989, two edicts seem to have been lad down as far as the Troma brand: 1) The conflicts will be drawn along explicitly anti-corporate morality plays, and 2) The "Troma style" is to make everything aspect of the film as ridiculous as possible. By the time Nuke 'Em High 2 came out in 1991 the heroic Warren-figure is played by a professional wrestler and the average female student is wearing a bikini. What a loss. At least the original Nuke 'Em High wrote an indoor beach party into the storyline to justify a flesh parade.
Class of Nuke 'Em High is an absolute classic. As a "Troma film" this was the most all-around satisfying work the company ever made: sexy, stupid, smart, funny, gory, exciting - and while it won't boggle your brain the way The Toxic Avenger's relentless bad taste does, it's as expertly assembled as anything the company ever did before or since. The concept of a zany high school where anything can happen because of nuclear waste's movie-magical properties was a match made in heaven for Troma's blossoming irreverent style. The performances from punks and squares alike are impassioned and the sure hand of Haines in the editing room razor blade never lets any scene limp or lag. The lightning-quick editing also compensates for budgetary restraints around the action scenes better than any low-budget film I've ever seen. At the end of the independent exploitation film era, Troma unwittingly gave the finest sendoff tribute to youth-exploitation films of all kinds that trash fans could ask for.