Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

When Disney Got Cold Feet Over Getting Spooky: The Watcher in the Woods (1980) & Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

July’s Movie of the Month is a jarring entry in the Walt Disney canon, something much spookier, much more adult, and much less financial successful than what the company usually produces. 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a Ray Bradbury-penned horror film packed with enough ghostly carnival attractions, Pam Grier witchcraft, and children-in-danger stakes to distract you from the fact that it’s a Disney movie to begin with. Still, it’s easy to get the sense while watching Something Wicked that Disney wasn’t fully committed to the adult horror waters it was testing at the time. Casting debates, re-shoots, and studio notes softened director Jack Clayton’s nightmarish vision at every turn. Alhough the film still stands out from Disney’s usual saccharine tone, it could have gone much, much further. This kind of post-production backpeddling was a constant theme during Disney’s brief adult horror period too. Much like with Something Wicked, the studio’s tinkering revisions softened & distorted the original vision of its first outright horror picture, 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods. Both films survived their troubled production histories as cult classic favorites, not financial successes, but both also could have been much more memorably strange & terrifying than Disney ultimately allowed them to be.

Before The Watcher in the Woods, Disney toyed with the idea of an outright horror tone with films like Black Hole or the Witch Mountain series, but it kept those urges confined to the bounds of a science fiction aesthetic, focusing on topics like space travel & telekinesis. The advertising for The Watcher in the Woods promised an entirely new, fully committed shift in trajectory. The trailers boasted, “Walt Disney ushers in a new decade of motion picture entertainment with the following invitation to spend 90min on the edge of your seat.” The problem is that the company wasn’t sure it wanted to accept its own invitation to do so. Director John Hough was hired with the intention of producing Disney’s The Exorcist, but the constant barrage of studio notes that tempered its production consistently diminished the wind in its sails. This behind-the-camera tinkering came to a head when the studio insisted that Hough rush its ending to completion so it could screen coinciding with a commemoration of star Bette Davis’s 50 years in the acting profession. The original ending, which includes a monstrous alien puppet that does not appear in the theatrical cut, was left incomprehensible due to the time constraint. It then had to be re-shot into a much more easily digestible conclusion after hundreds of stop & start rewrites. If pulled off well, it could have been a mind-blowing, impressively dark ending to an otherwise mildly spooky picture. In its compromised form, it’s more of an all-too-easy release of futilely built tension.

As much as you can feel the studio notes shenanigans muddling its ending & ultimate severity, The Watcher in the Woods is still an impressively spooky Disney picture & an important precursor to what the studio would soon accomplish in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange lights flashing in the woods, blindfolded ghosts appearing in cracked mirrors, haunted English mansions & carnival attractions: The Watcher establishes early glimpses of the same children vs. immense Evil horror that makes Something Wicked such a classic. Bette Davis appears in the full evil old biddy capacity she was frequently typecast in following the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, except with a distinctly tragic vulnerability that had been missing since that role reinvigorated her career. Her instantly spooky presence is admittedly sparse, but suggests much of the film’s horrific tone to come as the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance unfolds. Occultist rituals, alternate dimensions, and, of course, the eeriness of the woods set the stage for a grand supernatural finale that not only was supposed to settle its overarching mystery, but also give physical form to a literal “watcher” in the woods (who appears to be some kind of evil crawfish in the original ending). It’s a shame Disney didn’t afford Hough the patience to see the original conclusion through in all of its spooky glory, but it’s still kind of incredible that they ever toyed with the idea of making a genuine horror film at all, so I guess I should be content with what’s left to be enjoyed onscreen.

Neither The Watcher in the Woods nor Something Wicked This Way Comes are the scariest live-action Disney films of all time. For my money, I’d assume that honor goes to the deeply traumatizing Return to Oz, which was soon to follow. However, as a pair they do make clear that at one point Disney’s plan to revitalize its brand (which was struggling by the 80s, believe it or not) was to experiment with legitimate horror film aesthetics. You can feel that decision lurking in Something Wicked‘s haunted carnival nightmare and, honestly, I do believe it’s the better film of the two. The Watcher in the Woods is a much more naked, deliberate push in the horror direction, though. Besides Bette Davis’s evil old biddy presence, the film echoes plenty of already established horror tropes: The Exorcist’s seances, The Shining‘s backwards mirror writing, the camera’s POV chases through the woods that recall both Jaws & the era’s more typical slashers. It would have been fascinating to see if Disney might have been more committed to this dark path if the success of The Little Mermaid hadn’t ushered in their animated division’s 90s renaissance. Maybe they would have eventually loosened the reins on their hired guns’ dark visions and allowed their live action horrors to run free. It’s literally too good to be true, though, so all we can really do is marvel at the fact that they ever got as close as they did to the horror film deep end before they inevitably got cold feet.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BoomerBrandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch MountainReturn to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.

There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?

Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.

What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.

What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?

Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.

Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.

To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?

Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.)  In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.

This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them.  The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets.  I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.

What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?

Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.

The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.

A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character? 

Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy BrownFriday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.)  It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.

If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.

Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?

Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.

Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?

Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.

The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.

Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.

Lagniappe

Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.

Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.

Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.

Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).

Britnee:  I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Class of 1999 (1989)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon and Erin watch Class of 1999 (1989).

Boomer: Class of 1999 is a strange little movie. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure, the film is set in the titular year, less than a full decade after its release date. In this “distant” future, inter-gang violence has become so overwhelming that the areas around high schools have become dystopian free fire zones, but these violent, Mad Maxian teenagers still submit to going to campus every day for some reason. The movie’s protagonist, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), is a former gangmember paroled and returned to school. Unbeknownst to the student body, the principal (Malcolm McDowell) has agreed to allow an obviously mad roboticist (Stacy Keach) to install three former military androids (Patrick Kilpatrick, John P. Ryan, and goddess on this earth Pam Grier), “reprogrammed” as educators, as new instructors. Culp tries to stay out of trouble, but his narrative arc is complicated by his romance with the principal’s daughter (Tracy Lind). The androids decide that the best way to create a stable educational environment is to rid the school of violence by creating a war between the two rival gangs, even drawing in Culp due to the false flag death of his brother (Joshua John Miller, who was also the annoying kid brother in Teen Witch). As you would expect, this culminates in the two gangs putting aside their differences to defeat the Terminator. I mean the teachers.

I love this movie. It’s a perfect encapsulation of worst case, slippery slope thinking with regards to teen violence, a misplaced jeremiad warning of dark days to come–won’t someone please, please think of the children? Bradley Gregg, star of many of my adolescent fantasies (and one of the dream warriors from Nightmare on Elm Street 3), parades around in an outfit that manages to be both utterly ridiculous and strangely sexy, featuring skin-tight leather pants emblazoned with the word “war” over and over again and a form-fitting tee under an oversized babydoll jacket. He has nothing on Keach, of course, who struts around in this film with a platinum ponytail and matching (painful looking) contact lenses, while still somehow managing to play this ludicrous role as straight as possible. Throw in the other stars in the cast, like Grier and McDowell, and it’s a surprise that this Terminator ripoff made barely half of its relatively low budget back in ticket sales.

The Keach/Culp dichotomy of seriousness and campiness is one of my favorite things about Class. On the one hand, the film features ridiculous gang warfare with oversized vehicles in one scene, followed by dark domestic trouble in the form of Angel and Cody’s mother’s truly frightening drug addiction in the next (before she completely disappears from the film). Somehow, this intermix works for me, although I can admit it probably shouldn’t. What do you think, Britnee? Is this tonal inconsistency a drawback, or a feature?

Britnee: I think the mix of the film’s outlandish features and serious moments made Class the unique and unforgettable film that it is. If anything, the serious moments of the film, such as the mother and son drug brawl, amplified the film’s campiness, and that’s always a good thing. When serious, dramatic situations are placed in such a ridiculous setting (post-apocalyptic 1999), they bring out this sick and twisted type of humor that makes us all think, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” Being able to successfully pull off this type of humor and create such an uncomfortable mix of emotions is the greatest achievement that a film can accomplish. Unfortunately, Class did not have as many of those wonderful Lifetime movie-like moments as I hoped for, but I think that may be the only complaint I have about the film. It was that good.

Something that I just can’t stop thinking about from Class is the gang warfare between the Blackhearts and the Razorheads. The film’s street gangs are made out to seem like these awful groups of mixed-up teens who will never escape their miserable, violent lifestyle, but under their rough and tough exterior, they’re just a bunch of kids searching for a little bit of love and understanding. This really comes through when the Blackhearts and Razorheads stop killing each other and team up to fight the evil robotic teachers. The bad guys (Razorheads) join the not-as-bad guys (Blackhearts) and ultimately become the good guys. At this point, the gang lifestyle actually seems more acceptable and becomes a little appealing. I mean, if I was stuck in some crazy life-or-death situation where I was forced to join a gang, I would definitely let the Blackhearts jump me in. 80’s new wave couture, Nine Inch Nails dance parties with machine guns, and a gnarly black heart tattoo are enough to win me over.

Erin, what are your thoughts on the two opposing gangs joining forces to fight the evil robotic teachers? Was this one of the few heartwarming parts of the film? Or is it just another cheesy moment to add to the list?

Erin: I thoroughly enjoyed the Class of 1999 experience . . . but I’m not sure that I found the gangs joining forces to be terribly heartwarming.  I think that if they hadn’t been in an automatic-weapon fueled fire-fight, I might be with you.  Had they been engaged in an old fashioned fist-fight-style rumble, I think that I would be more sympathetic to their situation.  As it was, it seemed like the gang side of The Warriors and the terrorist robot side of The Terminator got together and forgot to bring a side helping of the humanity from The Outsiders (I’ll take 1980s movie title conventions for $500, Alex).

I think that Class of 1999 is trying to communicate a series of relationships to the viewers: the difference between the viewers and the post-apocalyptic kids,  the difference between the rival gangs, and the difference between all of the kids and the inhuman robots.  I think that the movie does a great job showing us the first relationship, but stumbles with the second two.  The gangland teens are pretty reprehensible, truly living up to the premise of the movie that youth gangs have turned American urban centers into warzones.  The movie makes a very clear break from reality with its set up and presentation of the its own world.

Cody is really the best glimmer of humanity out of the entire movie, in my opinion.  He’s the only example of a multi-dimensional character, with his dark side trying to survive in a gangland and his sweet side of falling in love with a certified Nice Girl.  We don’t get that multi-dimensionality from other members of the Blackhearts, much less from the punks in the Razorheads.  It’s really hard to root for any of them.  Perhaps Cody is supposed to stand out as the Last Sane Man?

In any case, it’s hard for me to see myself in the gang members as they make a stand against the Teachernators.  Yes, they’re scrappy kids coming together to take on psychotic military robots, but minutes earlier they were trying to kill each other with machine guns! On the other hand, the Roboteachers are out-of-their-minds inhuman, which is made evident early in the movie by their behaviors and later in the movie by their physical transformations into walking weapons.

What do you think, Brandon, does Class of 1999 struggle to humanize the human characters?  Is there a clear enough difference between the terrible actions taken by the gangs and the Teachbots?  Does the audience get an avatar to insert themselves into the movie, or are we just supposed to watch the carnage?

Brandon: Simply by the nature of what it’s trying to portray, I totally have to agree that all basic humanity has been stripped from this movie’s ultraviolent teens. Cartoonishly over-exaggerating adult fears about out of control young adult behavior, Class of 1999 poses a grim, larger than life portrait of teen rebellion that is far beyond anything you’d expect to see in any conceivable human being, young or not, even in a worst case scenario, ten years down the road cyberfuture. Yeah, teens can be perilously obsessive over getting their hands on drugs, beers, sex, and cool cars at times, but usually not in the way Class of 1999‘s teens mix those simple pleasures with guns, bombs, landmines, and missile launchers. The first half or so of the film plays like a particularly paranoid parent’s warped nightmare about what their teen is up to while they’re out with their bonehead friends. A great example of this is the warehouse concert scene. I’ve been to quite a few concerts in my time & while many may have involved industrial music dance parties, I can’t remember ever witnessing a gang beating in the moshpit, machine gun fire set off to the rhythm of the songs being played, or the venue being lit by carefully placed barrel fires. I’m sure that as my parents first let me out of the house to experience live music for the first time, however, their worst fears of what was going on weren’t too far off from that image.

The trick here is that Class of 1999 is smart to spoof both sides of the teen rebellion coin. Because teens are perceived as such violent, out of control animals, authority figures take an automatically adversarial position against them. Late in the film when Principal Malcom McDowell complains about his army of roboteachers, saying, “They’re waging war with my students!”, he’s met with the response, “Isn’t that what all teachers do?” If the film indeed has any specific sort of point it’s trying to make & we’re not supposed to just, as Erin suggests, sit back & “watch the carnage”, I think it’s to be found somewhere in that exchange. Even if real life teens are as bad as portrayed in this film (they’re not), they’re still far more sympathetic than the (robotic) adults that brutally murder them by snapping their necks or forcefeeding them glass vials of superdrugs. There’s an oppressive, prison-like atmosphere in the film’s educational system (complete with “RESPECT”, “OBEY”, “LEARN” commands that could’ve been directly lifted from John Carpenter’s They Live) that feels like a direct indictment of privatized, militarized schooling that treats kids like violent threats instead of young, eager minds. The cyberfuturism of Class of 1999‘s killer robot “tactical education units” may not be readily recognizable in today’s flesh-bound educational units (public school teachers), but they do feel like a blown-up, exaggerated version of the way we systematically tend to treat children as a threat & a nuisance.

Boomer, how much do you think Class of 1999 is a movie of its time? Do you think that there’s a bit of historical, late 80s gang violence context here that would drastically change if there were to be a Class of 2025 released in 2015? Or would the same basic adult fears of teen rebellion & a privatized, militaristic educational system be eligible for lampooning today (with CGI bloodsplatter unfortunately subbed for the practical effects gore, of course)?

Boomer: One of the great truths about western culture is that each generation that reaches the level of becoming “the establishment” seeks out and pontificates about the fatal flaws in the generation that follows. This is nothing new; adults of today are “concerned” about the isolating effects of handheld devices, just as my parents were “concerned” about the isolating effects of the Discman, or their forebears were concerned about the invention of this thing or that thing, going back to concerns that the invention of the phonograph would lead to fewer people being interested in learning to play instruments. There are a lot of sociological and anthropological reasons for this, but most of it boils down to the universal constant that we will only get older, coupled with the fear of obsolescence and fear-mongering about “the youth,” and treating them, as Brandon notes, as a threat or nuisance.

The other major factor in the genesis of 1999 is that the late eighties and early nineties saw a very visible rise in gang violence, something that couldn’t simply be dismissed, so the news media had to address it. However, the “establishment” couldn’t acknowledge that disenfranchised people turn to crime because of systemic problems related to class and privilege, especially not when people were basically walking down the street accidentally poking others with their raging pro-wealth Reaganomics hard-ons. As a result, the majority of Americans, ignorant of the real causes of gang violence and its apparent meteoric rise, had nothing to cling to but their filtered and incorrect understanding of social problems, reinforced by the cyclical nature of youth-blaming.

What’s so interesting to me is how 1999 manages to be both an indictment of that mindset and the apotheosis of it at the same time, and, although I may be giving it too much credit here, I think that this is intentional. The darkness that permeates Culp’s world represents all the things that the parents of 1989 feared about the future, a horribly violent place where those nasty (scary) teenagers with their loud music and their dirty fingernails rule over a scorched suburbia because no one took a stand against teenage skullduggery when there was a chance! But it also holds up a mirror to that absurd frame of mind, pointing out the flaws in that kind of fearful, conservative nightmare by showing how unrealistic and silly such a future would be. Also, there are killer robots, because who doesn’t love that? And, if your kids are running around doing drugs, they probably learned it from watching you, mom or dad!

So, the answer is “yes,” 1999 is a very much a product of its time and of the politico-cultural environment from which it sprung, and there would have to be significant updates to remake this movie, although I could see how it could be done in a couple of different ways, depending upon which of Joann and Cletus’s fears you wish to highlight and mock. Political correctness is often a good place for conservative muckrakers to stir up some passion: “In the future world of 2025, schools no longer teach facts, they teach feelings. They no longer teach science, they teach sensitivity. And they only teach the ‘corrected’ version of history.” And, like, instead of robot teachers, there’s an AI that seeks to “purge” students of their hopefulness or individuality or whatever by teaching them about all of American history, atrocity alongside progress, and by teaching them self-control and tolerance. Cody Culp would be a secret bigot who teaches his androgynous and sexless peers, long having been made soft of mind by those damn SJWs, to fight back against the machine of liberal indoctrination by being politically incorrect and proud, or whatever. To be honest, though, I don’t know that this would be recognized as a satirical interpretation of a conservative’s nightmare of the future; it would be more likely to be seen as a prescient vision of a world to come, ruled by the “libtard.” Or maybe I’m just on a tangent; who knows.

The real truth is this: the way education is enforced in the west is not the best method for schooling, and we all pretty much know that. The priorities are all skewed, and the eight-hour, rigidly-structured schoolday that has been the model for a long time isn’t based on the best pedagogical or psychoeducational practices but on the model of a workday; it forcibly instills in children a willingness to accept the drudgeries of pyramid capitalism, essentially, rather than encouraging critical thought, technical acumen, interest in knowledge for its own sake, or any kind of prioritization of variety in educational forms. You can see that small changes are taking place today, but for the worse; as an educator, I toured a new charter school just a year or two ago that was filled with classrooms that didn’t look like classrooms. They looked like call centers. So even if Class of 2025 were to be made in the way that I poorly pitched above, a Republican nightmare of social justice gone mad, it would still be nothing like the schools of the future, just as my school in 1999 was not a war zone of apocalyptic proportions.

Britnee: What do you think about a Class of 2025? Does your conception of what Class of 1999‘s thesis was differ from mine, and if so, how do you think your interpretation would be updated for a contemporary audience?

Britnee: When watching Class of 1999, I did realize that there was a connection to the large amount of youth gang violence occurring around the time the film was released, but I really didn’t think much of it. I saw the film as being loads of stupid fun without much depth, but your perspective really got me thinking about the whole “youth-blaming” and “conservative nightmare” aspects that the film definitely illustrates. Loud music, fast cars, leather jackets, heavy eyeliner, and funky haircuts were a conservative parent’s nightmare in the late 80s/early 90s, and the teens in 1999 are an explosion of this stereotypical degenerate youth. The whole film actually reminds me of a lost Billy Idol music video. It’s just so “Rebel Yell.” These types of teens were going to cause the world to become a post-apocalyptic cesspool of crime, violence, and pure filth. Unfortunately, the world did not become that exciting by 1999. There were many changes that occurred within those short 10 years, but at the same time, much remained the same.

Now, to think of what my interpretation of 1999 would be for a contemporary audience. 1999 did play on the fear of what the future would be like for the youth of that time, and now it seems as though one of the biggest fears for today’s youth is the lack of importance placed on quality education. A modern 1999, or as Boomer stated, 2025, would deal with the absence of general education and the emphasis on some sort of super strict social class-based structure. Children will be sorted into military, white-collar, or blue-collar positions at birth, like in the movie Antz when newborn ants are assigned to be workers and soldiers. Who knew that such a horrible movie would be so insightful? Each group would have their separate type of school, but they would be more like training academies. Only the elite would receive a quality education, and they would use it to coerce obedience and conformity on the youth. Those that do not have elite status would live in squalor and have all sorts of chemicals in the air and water that dope them up, making them ultra submissive to authority. I feel as though the teen rebellion wouldn’t be as violent as one would expect. They would rely more on outsmarting the authority and only shooting them up from time to time instead of a constant machine gun blowout like in 1999. At this point, weapons would probably have lasers instead of bullets, so the battle scenes would be a little more on the calm side.

Erin, speaking of weapons, did you think that it was strange that the weapons in 1999 weren’t very futuristic? Come to think of it, not much was futuriscitc about this film that was set in the future. Is the budget to blame for this or is it something bigger?

Erin :  Britnee, someone remarked during our viewing of Class of 1999 “Oh no!  They didn’t invent cell phones in the future!” as two characters were forced into a situation with no way of contacting each other.

In some ways, yes, I think that budget has something to do with why the weapons and other parts of the film weren’t very futuristic.  Clearly, the bulk of the effects budget went to the Teachbots and their final set-chewing rampage.  Honestly, I think the bulk of the general budget may have gone to that last scene.

In other ways, I think that a few things inhibited Class of 1999‘s presentation of the future.  First of all, it could make logical sense that the teen gangs in the movie only have access to older, out of date technology and weapons. Teens in 1999 might have had pagers, but in my community were only on the cusp of common cellphone ownership.   Admittedly, this theory falls apart a little in the way that the administrators are not seen using futuristic technology either.

Secondly,  one of the difficulties of setting a movie in the near future is hitting the right pitch for technological advancement.  I think that the rapid development of computer and internet culture, where even impoverished  families have internet access and at least one computer, and the ubiquity of personal electronics such PDAs and cellphones might have been impossible to see from late 1980s.  From where we stand, it seems obvious and inevitable that the future would look like it does (or did, in 1999).  For the writers and audiences at the time, that might have seemed as outlandish as Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders.

And thirdly (and most likely, I think), placing Class of 1999 in the near future is a nice way to hand wave away the complete ridiculousness of the world that the movie inhabits.  The future setting means that the filmmakers have to take much less responsibility for portraying any kind of real life anything, from the physical sets to the interactions of the characters.  Honestly, I think that’s a sloppy use of what can be an effective story-telling tool.  Science Fiction as a genre is also used as a means of giving us the distance needed from reality to discuss difficult issues.  By setting Class of 1999 in the future, the filmmakers were able to explore both the dual fear of out-of-control youth and out-of-control education institutions with removal from the actual educational landscape of 1989-90. (I’ll insert here that I think Class of 1999 is more a fantasy rather than a proper Science Fiction movie.)

The unreality of the movie not withstanding, there are some moments that resonated with me as “real”.  When Cody’s mother and brother fight over drugs, I was reminded that the late 80s had seen crack cocaine strike urban areas like an epidemic.  Many cities were still suffering from botched urban renewal plans and the hemorrhagic flow of residents to suburbs.

What do you think, Brandon, where do you see realism in this movie?  Is searching for reality even relevant?

Brandon: I feel like we’ve already run through a great deal of the film’s startling realism here: the cultural context of 80s gang violence (as portrayed in the media); the broken, unnecessarily adversarial education system; the shocking jolts of harrowing drug addiction & attempted sexual assault that break up the fun, etc. Something that does stand out to me, though, is the budding romantic relationship between our beloved teen protagonists Cody & Traci. Okay, it’s a little ridiculous that that the movie made time for a romantic subplot in the midst of battle droid educational units liberally murdering teenagers in the guise of discipline, but it’s also a somewhat believable ridiculousness. If you combine already heightened teenage libidos with the kind of tumultuous situations that naturally tend to bring people together (say, your gym teacher removing his arm to reveal a subdermal rocket launcher, for instance) it’s only logical that a romantic bond or two will arise. Thankfully, the one delivered here is accompanied with such great exchanges as Cody coolly responding to the question “You gonna call me or what?” with “Yeah. Both.” and hilariously teasing Traci to “Open up those suburban eyes” to the danger they’re facing. I’ll make no guesses as to how realistic that exact dialogue is, but the situation is at the very least more believable than an army of robotic teachers that get away with viciously spanking (not to mention disembowling & setting aflame) their students with out so much as a peep from the PTA.

Lagniappe

Erin: The least believable part of this whole movie is that these kids are still showing up for school.  With the exception of Cody’s probation requirement, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to show up. Why?  Why are they there?

Britnee: Of all the strange yet amazing moments in Class of 1999, the one that I just can’t forget is when Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) exposes his claw machine hand for the first time. As he sinks his creepy claw into the skull of an unfortunate teen, he says one of the greatest lines in the film: “I love to mold young minds.” Those obnoxious arcade toy machines will never be the same!

Brandon: One of the oddest details in a movie where they’re in no short supply are the ordinary objects of a banana & glass of milk. Character actor Stacy Keach does an excellent job of chewing scenery as the evil “Megatech robotics specialist” Dr. Robert Forrest, who provides the technology for the evil teacherbots. He gets obvious perverse pleasure from watching his creations discipline their students (which is especially alarming during one particular robospanking), deriving even greater joy when their “discipline” escalates to murder, and he just generally looks like an evil lab rat that killed so many other lab rats that he was honorarily dubbed a scientist because people were afraid to put him down. What I love most about Dr. Forrest, who is an all around great villain, is that on top of these unwholesome characteristics, he seems to enjoy incongruously wholesome snacks. Watching someone so evil & so fake-looking casually chew on a banana & gulp a glass of milk is a hilarious, unsettling sight gag that beautifully complicates his character in a way that’s almost too good to have been scripted. I like to imagine that Keach came up with his own onscreen snack regimen himself, insisting on enjoying his milk & his banana (surely obtained from craft services) on camera in order to give his character a whole other layer of perversity. No matter whose idea it was, though, it totally worked & after the movie I ended up thinking just as much about those snacks as I did about the film’s roboviolence, which is really saying something.

Boomer: The DVD for this movie is as light on special features as you would expect for a niche-but-not-quite-cult classic film such as this, but it amuses me that the DVD cover foregoes the Terminator-esque cover of the VHS in favor of an image that looks like Shaq in Steel. Almost every trailer on the disc, however, is for some film that echoes Terminator in some way, however, which is good enough. Also, nothing tells you more about the film-makers’ misconception of the teaching profession than Traci’s comment that women never buy just a sexy bra or pair of panties, that they treat themselves. Because teachers make soooo much money with which to treat themselves, am I right? That’s why I’m still a teacher–no, wait, I quit because even working a second job didn’t net enough to get by on. Sorry, Traci, not all of our academically employed fathers are getting grant money from crazed scientists.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)
January: The Best of 2015

-The Swampflix Crew