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Massacre At Central High(1976)

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Massacre At Central High (1976)

Despite its title, Massacre at Central High (1976) is a politically-charged horror/action examination of modern-day high school life and not a slasher film; in fact, it predates that popular craze by at least two years. Some neo-hack-and-slash films had already been released (most notably 1974's Black Christmas), but this oddball drive-in offering features a surprisingly ambitious and disturbing sensibility which bears little in common with the teens-in-peril hits following in its wake.

Drawing upon such prior films as diverse as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and even 1974's Twisted Brain, our story begins at a typical SoCal high school where new transfer student and track athlete David (Derrel Maury) finds himself entangled with a quartet of bullies: Mark (Andrew Stevens), Bruce (Ray Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond), and Paul (Damon Douglas). The only member to show compassion, his old friend Mark, is also dating pretty Theresa (Kimberly Beck), on whom David has a secret crush. An escalating series of misdeeds by the high school tyrants, including a van joyride gone terribly wrong, begin to push David over the edge as they try to goad him into going along with their amoral after-school activities. Finally a sexual assault on two female students forces David to take a stand and defend those who can't stand up for themselves, with Theresa witnessing his increasingly belligerent behavior.

The stakes escalate when David's track-running dreams are shattered by Bruce who pays him a visit in his garage and releases a car onto one of David's legs, a fate the youth decides to avenge not by going to the police, but by taking out the bullies on his own terms. Unfortunately the now liberated students don't seem as liberated as David would like and become as tyrannical as their oppressors, while Theresa and Mark find themselves in a race against time to save the school from total destruction.

As the synopsis above should already indicate, Dutch-born writer and director Rene Daalder has more on his mind here than offering a parade of T&A and mindless killings. The basic storyline owes most of its structural design to George Orwell's Animal Farm, of all things, and the interjection of fascistic music themes and an avoidance of traditional hero-versus-villain storytelling immediately sets it apart from its ilk.

The common critical and fan comparisons to the revenge fantasy of the same year's Carrie still seem appropriate, particularly since both films seem to exist in some twilight adolescent world where parents are negligible and adults in general fail to set any sort of example with the youths instead speaking dialogue far more advanced than their years might indicate. Several of the actors later claimed to have improvised many of their lines on the spot to spackle over their wooden dialogue, but it's impossible to judge the veracity of this by watching the finished product.

Also like Carrie, Massacre at Central High served as a springboard for a handful of its young actors who went on to subsequent Hollywood projects, albeit on a much smaller scale than De Palma's film. (Inexplicably the actor with the largest and most demanding role, Maury, has remained the most obscure, retiring from the screen in 1985 before making an unexpected resurgence in 2007.) More significantly, the film (perhaps the first in America to depict mass violence in a high school setting) influenced a surprising number of subsequent teen-oriented releases ranging from Allan Arkush's Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) to Mark Lester's Class of 1984 (1982); however, the most blatant example, Michael Lehmann's Heathers (1988), cleverly riffs on numerous themes and sequences in this film and even quotes it directly during Christian Slater's memorable bomb-blasting finale on the high school steps.

The subsequent Columbine shootings and copycat high school incidents afterwards have now changed the public perception of this film and its successors, which once seemed like lurid, allegorical fantasies but have now taken on the disturbing sheen of cold, newsworthy reality-- less entertainment now than disturbingly prescient visions of adolescent educational terror. Though it first seemed out of step with its successors like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the thoughtful and ultimately humane undercurrents of Massacre at Central High now make it a worthy discovery for those willing to step outside the usual constraints of traditional horror filmmaking.

Producer: Harold Sobel
Director: Renee Daalder
Screenplay: Renee Daalder
Cinematography: Bert Van Munster
Art Direction: Russell Tune
Music: Tommy Leonetti
Film Editing: Harry Keramidas
Cast: Derrel Maury (David), Andrew Stevens (Mark), Robert Carradine (Spoony), Kimberly Beck (Theresa), Ray Underwood (Bruce), Steve Bond (Craig), Steve Sikes (Rodney), Lani O'Grady (Jane), Damon Douglas (Paul), Dennis Kort (Arthur), Rainbeaux Smith (Mary), Jeffrey Winner (Oscar), Thomas Logan (Harvey).
C-87m.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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Massacre At Central High (1976)

Massacre at Central High was shot in Los Angeles and Malibu over a three-week period in early 1976, all with non-union actors. Many of the outdoor driving scenes including the car explosion were shot at L.A.'s Griffith Park, a frequent film location most famously immortalized in Rebel without a Cause (1955), while the library death scene was shot at Hollywood High School.

Director Rene Daalder was brought on to write and direct the project on the recommendation of director Russ Meyer, who had enlisted him to write the unproduced film Hollywood Tower in 1984. An accomplished technical director with an affinity for music-related projects, he went on to design the legendary "My Way" sequence with Sid Vicious in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980). He has since focused mainly on computer animation and virtual reality creation, though he occasionally directed additional features including Here Is Always Somewhere Else (a 2007 documentary about '70s conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader who vanished at sea), Population: 1 (a 1986 sci-fi musical starring The Screamers), Habitat (a 1997 futuristic fantasy with Balthazar Getty), and Hysteria (a hallucinatory 1998 thriller with Patrick McGoohan and Amanda Plummer).

Derrel Maury was originally cast in the supporting role of ill-fated Rodney, but the part was switched with actor Rex Sikes, who recalled the script as being "corny in places" and noted that the director "was fun to work with. I can't say I understood his vision for this movie, maybe none of us did, but we did what we had to get it done." This also entailed an unusually physical fight scene during which Andrew Stevens accidentally broke Sikes' nose, which remained untreated for the rest of the shoot.

The memorable exploding locker scene was accomplished using a real stuntman tethered to a harness and pulleys which yanked him away from the blast. However, the gas pressure was turned up too high and blew out the lights on the set, an unplanned effect which remains in the finished film.

The film was intended to be a violent, commercial project which, according to uncredited co-producer Bill Lange, was the first film after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to use the word "Massacre" in its title.

The premiere of Massacre at Central High was held in August, 1976 at the long-gone Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Initially released in September, 1976 beginning in New York, Massacre at Central High failed to make a substantial box office impact during its run throughout that year. A subsequent critical reappraisal by Vincent Canby reignited interest in the film, though it had also found a champion during its original play dates in Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it one of his Top 10 Films of the year. A subsequent analysis of the film in Danny Peary's influential Cult Films book and its follow-up, A Guide for the Film Fanatic, ensured its reputation outside of the die-hard horror community.

In Europe the film enjoyed a wide and surprisingly colorful distribution history. In some countries, most notably Italy, it was even reissued under the title Sexy Jeans with several softcore sex "inserts" added using body doubles for the actors-even Robert Carradine. This version is now extremely difficult to see and does not currently exist in an English-language edition.

Despite its cult reputation, Massacre at Central High has been notoriously difficult to see on home video. In the UK it was briefly issued under the title Blackboard Massacre and for several years was the only country to offer a DVD release. In America, it was only on videotape once for an extremely brief period in the early 1980s.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Sources:
Cult Movies, Danny Peary
Internet Movie Database
Horror Yearbook, Interview with Rex Sikes

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Massacre At Central High (1976)

IN THE KNOW - TRIVIAActor Robert Carradine returned to similar cinematic territory playing another tormented weakling who gets even in 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, his most famous film role. Massacre at Central High marked his fourth major drive-in role in one of his busiest years, 1976, which also saw him starring in The Pom Pom Girls, Jackson County Jail, and Cannonball! (as well as a fleeting bit part in Revenge of the Cheerleaders). He is part of the venerable Carradine acting dynasty, which also includes brothers Keith, David, Bruce and Michael, as well as father John.

The cast includes another second-generation Hollywood actor, Andrew Stevens, the son of actress Stella Stevens. His first onscreen appearance was in one of his mother's films, 1963's The Courtship of Eddie's Father, at the age of eight. Massacre at Central High was his first major leading role and led to such other films as William Girdler's Day of the Animals (1977), Brian De Palma's The Fury (1978), and Sidney J. Furie's The Boys in Company C (1978). His exploitation days continued well into the next decade with such films as Death Hunt (1981), The Seduction (1982), and 10 to Midnight (1983), after which he largely pursued a career in television with recurring roles on Dallas and Emerald Point N.A.S. He now works primarily as a film producer and financier.

The film's composer, Tommy Leonetti, also penned and sang the theme song, "Crossroads." A regular crooner from the early TV music program, Your Hit Parade, he made papers by testifying against the Mafia and passed away from cancer three years after working on Massacre at Central High.

Leonetti's stepdaughter, Kimberly Beck, appears as the female lead Theresa; also a singer, Beck recorded a duet with Leonetti of his song "Let's Take a Walk" which was released as a 45 single. Beck primarily worked in television, but her best-remembered feature film role is the lead "final girl" Trish in 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, with subsequent, much smaller roles in Luc Besson's The Big Blue (1988), Nico Mastorakis' Nightmare at Noon (1988), Roger Avary's Killing Zoe (1994), and Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996).

Kimberly Beck also appeared in a memorable guest role as Nancy Bradford on the hit 1970s TV series Eight Is Enough, which also starred one of her Massacre at Central High co-stars, Lani O'Grady, who played Mary Bradford. One of the many tragic casualties of the '70s television era, O'Grady suffered from intense panic attacks which forced her to retire from acting in the early 1980s. Her increasing dependence on prescription medications and a series of disastrous medical experiences eventually culminated in her death on September 25, 2001 at the age of 47.

Another tragic figure, actress Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, was unappreciated for much of her career. Nicknamed for her frequent presence at the rock hangout The Rainbow Club in L.A., she was once a drummer for Joan Jett and starred in a wide variety of cult films including Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974), Drum (1976), Cinderella (1977), Robert Aldrich's The Choirboys (1977), and Up in Smoke (1978). Unfortunately she succumbed to heroin addiction which curtailed her career, sending her into a tailspin which ended in 2002 with her death from hepatitis. However, her reputation has escalated in recent years with an increasing fan following and the growing availability of her large body of film work to new generations.

Israeli-born Steve Bond also appeared with lead Derrel Maury in another 1976 drive-in film, Cat Murkil and the Silks, a teen gang movie also known as Cruisin' High. Bond went on to appear in the 1979 cable TV favorite H.O.T.S. and alternated his 1980s television acting career (including a regular role on General Hospital) with stints as a Chippendales dancer. His first film role was as the final "Boy" in a big screen Tarzan film, 1968's Tarzan and the Jungle Boy.

Actor Rex Sikes, who plays Rodney, is now a corporate psychic entertainer and the "world's first motivational mind reader."

by Nathaniel Thompson

Sources:
Cult Movies, Danny Peary
Internet Movie Database
Horror Yearbook, Interview with Rex Sikes

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Massacre At Central High (1976)

"An intriguing, diagrammatic example of subversive cinema. The action takes place in a lavish LA high school where authority is noticeable by its total absence, and where life exists only in the gaps between classes. This teen exploiter goes for nothing less than an entire allegory on society, power structures, and the failure of revolution. Despite a deceptively laid back style, the film's ambition, knowingness and surefootedness make it worth a look."
TimeOut New York

"Nudity, violence and a strangely subversive script highlight this characteristic mid-'70s slasher... Rene Daalder's film is, at one level, a teen slasher but a look beneath the surface reveals a subversive, bleak view of society as a whole."
Channel 4 Film

"Working within the very conventional frame of the teen-age exploitation picture, Mr. Daalder has made a witty, surprising, very entertaining low-budget movie that doesn't easily fit into any category. Massacre at Central High is both a teen-age exploitation picture and its send-up. At the same time it's a morality tale that works a few intelligent variations on Death Wish (1974), which didn't have a thought in its head. It might even be read as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the Third Reich... Any film that so efficiently juggles so many ideas deserves attention."
Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Renee Daalder is a Dutch male director whose relation to American high schools was probably about what Brecht's was to Chicago when he wrote The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui. I'm not claiming that Massacre is nearly as complex or as politically focused a work as the Brecht, but there are similarities. Another descriptive comparison a more politically oriented Carrie... There is a free-floating Third Reich theme that foreshadows the contradictions of punk... These adolescents behave just like the adults on whom they model themselves. It is not necessary to show the adults because they co-exist with the kids, inside their bodies. They, the adults, are Body Snatchers."
Soho News

"More teen exploitation flick than distilled horror. Of course there is much to recommend Massacre and the film attains a level of poignancy and earnest sincerity that was so common in the seventies but which is utterly lacking in today's motion pictures... It's worth a look and one can only wonder how come it hasn't been more widely seen or why it's been out of circulation for so long... A bloody but bittersweet tear of the soul, this adept angst terror is buoyed throughout by that rarest of horror genre apparitions: realistic characters thoughtfully drawn."
The Terror Trap

"Blessed with some choice dialogue and suspect costuming decisions, Massacre at Central High is the epitome of the '70s meathead ethic fused with an apt social commentary."
Cinemuerte

"Although only marginally a horror film, this is easily the most interesting and intelligent entry in the 'dead teenager' sweepstakes, a film that actually dares to place its murders in a microcosmic political climate: the American high school... A fascinating little movie that delivers its expected exploitation thrills while presenting a political allegory, albeit a somewhat confused one. We are shown a world run entirely by adolescents. Director Renee Daalder understood the average American teenager's view of high school: it is a highly structured caste system wherein differences are poorly tolerated."
TV Guide

"..this is a weirdo proto-slasher...It's murkily filmed and has a strange atmosphere: there are no teachers around, the police never seem to investigate the deaths - they only turn up right at the end for the dramatic finale - and none of the students are ever seen in class. This could have been an inspiration for Heathers (1988), with its main character's murderous solutions and generally offbeat quality, which the stilted acting only enhances. Music by Tommy Leonetti, and listen for the inappropriately sugary theme song."
- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

"TV exposure over the years has made this a cult film. It doesn't live up to its title, but it's well worth seeing."
- Michael J. Weldon, The Psychotronic Video Guide

"There are about 9 or 10 kills in the film in which at least 2 or 3 of them were nicely done for a mid '70s flick."
RIP

Compiled by Nathaniel Thompson

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Massacre At Central High (1976)

DAVID: This place is a maze.
THERESA: I know. You'll get used to it.

MARK: You know that fat kid, Oscar? He climbed two feet higher than he ever has before. Guess all he needed was a little friendly persuasion.

DAVID: You don't like those guys?
THERESA: The Little League Gestapo; who does?

THERESA: What's wrong, Craig, you can't get it up for an audience?

THERESA: He's a good friend of yours, Mark, the best. There was a moment before the accident; we were on the beach, talking and feeling close. We went skinny-dipping. I wanted to make love and I think he did too, but he wouldn't, because of you.

RODNEY: I'm ashamed of this whole school. What a senseless, mindless display.
SPOONY: Oh, f**k off, Rodney. Jesus Christ, it's all a part of our liberation.
RODNEY: By wasting food? All you spoiled rich brats are the same!

RODNEY: These students crave an alternative to Bruce's brute force. We can supply it.
DAVID: What can we supply?
RODNEY: Leadership. Direction. Why, with my brains and your influence, we can turn this into a place where mind and spirit are more important than brawn. You don't believe it's possible? Of course not! You think of yourself as a hopeless cripple, never taking command. The same was true for me, but I've learned something you haven't. I've learned that a physical disability needn't be debilitating. A weakness of the body can be compensated for by the mind. A person can become even more powerful.

PAUL: What are you gonna do, sit there and die?

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