Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986, Richard W. Haines & Lloyd Kaufman)

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:

"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?"

"She looked better that way!"

"Oh c'mon guys, look, I mean Chrissy has a point. A lot of people around here have been acting nuts!"

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.

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