In 1981 an unlikely dream team of CBC reporter Arthur Kent, a pre-“Family Ties” Michael J. Fox, actor Timothy Van Patten (way before he started directing “The Sopranos”) and the auteur behind “Roller Boogie” descended on Central Tech to shoot a movie.
“Battlezone: Adams High,” which became “Guerrilla High,” which became “Class of 1984” stars Perry King as an idealistic high-school music teacher who exacts brutal revenge after a psychopathic student (Van Patten) and his degenerate crew wreak havoc on the student body and ultimately assault his wife. The film co-stars Emmy-winning Roddy McDowall as a colleague who’s pushed to the brink and Ontario’s own Lisa Langlois as a gleefully evil gang member. Hamilton punk-rock legends Teenage Head even show up to get things slamming.
Cannes went wild, Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up, and the film, with its lurid and unflinching depiction of a high school rife with crime and violence, became a hit. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, filmmakers, cast members and a couple of superfans look back on one of the most delirious B movies ever made in Toronto.
Cinema Canada magazine (September 1981): Arthur Kent, best known to most Canadians as a CBC news reporter and brother of ex-National anchorman Peter Kent, has moved into a new field, feature production. Kent’s first theatrical feature, “Battlezone: Adams High,” goes before the cameras at Toronto’s Central Tech High School on August 17 (1981). … Novice producer Kent has no doubts about the marketability of his story, which he described as a cross between “To Sir, with Love” and “Dirty Harry.”
Arthur Kent (producer): I was 27 in 1980. I had been a reporter with CBC News, the national correspondent for Alberta. But I left to go overseas because I wanted to do international news. I was in Israel when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan at the start of 1980. At that time, it was either do the hostage-taking in Tehran, which everybody was covering, or the war in Afghanistan, which people were having a hard time covering because the Soviets had thrown all the journalists out. I chose the latter. The way I did that was to come back to Calgary, my hometown, and propose a certified Canadian production – that is, a documentary certified by Canadian authorities to gain tax write-offs for investors. I financed it with a group of stockbrokers, and it was a success. After it aired in the summer of 1980, this group approached me and said, “How would you feel about producing a much bigger production?” And I said, “Well, sure.” The leader of that group, John Toffan, said, “I’ve got a friend in Los Angeles who’s a young director.” So, he put me together with Mark Lester. And that’s how the project came into being in late autumn 1980.
Mark L. Lester (director, co-executive producer, co-screenwriter): The premise is powerful: a pacifist teacher becomes this vicious vigilante killer. And the audience is cheering him on.
Kent: Our production was fairly ambitiously budgeted at $4.3 million.
Lester: I was influenced heavily by (the 1955 inner-city school drama) “Blackboard Jungle.” My film was an amped-up version of all my nightmares growing up and going to high school. It just came out of this madness, in an era where you could still make whatever you wanted, and people weren’t questioning that. There was no need to be politically correct. Today, you could never even film some of the scenes that are in this movie.
Perry King (actor): It got much more violent in the shooting than it was on paper. That was around the time I was starting to develop a strong distaste for violence in films. I was trying to tame it down while we were shooting.
Lester: At the time we were shooting, Perry says, “I can’t saw someone’s arm off!” I go, “Well, you boiled someone in a pot in ‘Mandingo.’” “Oh, you’re right. OK!”
Lisa Langlois (actor): When I got cast, I remember everybody saying, “We love her, but she’s got this Canadian accent.” This top (dialect coach) called Bob Easton broke my accent in three hours.
King: I was fascinated by my character. He’s being forced to fight back, and yet that’s anathema to him. The guy has a tremendous arc. That’s what actors always look for in a role.
Kent: You can see on the screen: nobody is mailing in their performance.
King: We were all just working actors who committed to the job at hand. It was quite clear to us the style that was being asked for was taking it very seriously – no sense of humour about any of it, making it life and death for all those characters.
Tom Scharpling (fan): A juicy part is a juicy part, and you can sleepwalk through it at your own peril. Why would you do that? It’s chum for an actor to get to be in high drama like this, even if it’s kind of dumb and trashy.
The filmmakers chose to shoot in Toronto to take advantage of tax breaks and more accommodating crews.
Lester: I love Toronto because it’s like Anytown, America: Detroit, Chicago, New York.
King: I’ve spent many years of my life in Toronto pretending it’s New York or Boston, all kinds of places. It’s never been Toronto. When I’ve been there, it’s always been somewhere else.
Kent: The Toronto of that era had in several neighbourhoods, buildings and street scenes that could sell an American setting. There were parts of Toronto that were distressed.
Lester: We used this high school, Central Tech, in downtown Toronto. We shot in the summertime when the school was closed. The art director painted all this graffiti throughout the school. I heard it caused a bit of an issue because when the kids came back, the school was still filled with all this crazy graffiti.
Langlois: Oh, that is so sad. I hate when people don’t leave things in the same condition or better. I didn’t know about that.
Lester: For the scene in the punk club with Teenage Head, we advertised in a local Toronto paper to get all these punk rockers in – like, 500 showed up to be extras. They had a thing at the time called slam dancing, and they would just bang into each other. So, they gave the actors a run for their money. It was a crazy scene.
Langlois: I had a few punk rock women say to me, “You’re not a real punk rocker, the way you’re dressed. We’re going to get you when you’re on your own.” If you watch the film, you don’t see me in that dance scene. I made sure that I was very scarce because I thought, “If they’re going to get me, that’s where they’re going to get me – when they’re slam dancing.” It was one of the few times I’ve been afraid on a set.
Gord Lewis (guitarist, Teenage Head): I recall 200 disgruntled punks and a disconnect because they were real Toronto, early-’80s punks that didn’t love the success the band was gaining at that time. We finally won the punks over by the end of the very long shoot and we became friends.
Langlois: There was a lot of danger because it was the wild, wild west in Canada. There was this one scene with Roddy McDowall driving a car recklessly, as it’s described in the script, as he tried to run us down. It was on Elm Street and they didn’t have a stunt driver. It was Roddy McDowall driving the car. I ran for my life for real.
Kent: I think what Lisa’s probably referring to is that we had a fairly informal, open and fluid atmosphere on the shoot. It’s true, Roddy was eager to drive the car through an approach. But as I remember, it was either a three-point turn or a simple 90-degree turn, drive by the camera and then stop.
Lester: And we flipped a car in the middle of downtown Toronto.
Kent: (Stunt coordinator) Terry Leonard came to me and (first assistant director) Tony Lucibello and said, “We’ve got an old car functioning very well, but it’s a stunt car. It’s got to hit a particular speed. It’s going to go up an iron ramp, which is partially concealed, and flip over. And (we’re) gonna set off explosives in the car. So, I do not want any stuntman driving that car. I want a hell driver.” We found a hell driver in Montreal working in an arena show. We flew him to Toronto and he drove the stunt with the flipping, exploding car. It went off in one take exactly as it was designed by Terry.
I personally visited all the businesses on Elm Street to prepare them, to let them know this is what’s going to take place. There were a minimum of complaints. It was held very late at night. It was safe. Nothing went wrong. I would say we were pushing everything we did. But we had in key positions, as department heads, among the most experienced people in film.
Langlois: In Los Angeles, it’s been generations of filmmaking. So, there are rules and regulations that get established from things happening. Those things hadn’t happened up here yet, so there weren’t rules and regulations in place.
Kent: I think Mark found Toronto more restrictive than L.A., but I kept telling him, “I hear what you’re saying.” We’re having to plan everything in advance and get approvals and permissions – even shooting in homes, renting homes or apartments as locations. It seemed to him onerous. I said, “Take it from me, as someone who has grown up in this country, went to university in Ottawa, has worked in Toronto news, they’re bending over backwards for us.”
King: It was a scrappy low-budget production. I’ve done so many of those in my career, and they’re always exciting because of it – and fun. But you’re always scrambling to make things work.
Kent: Producing a motion picture is like setting up a tent in a windstorm. It’s never going to be all four corners in place. You have to thrive on the air of crisis and instant decision-making and the clock constantly moving, the schedule, the board, the date, the calendar flipping by.
Lester: The premiere was at the Cannes Film Festival and the reception was insane. That’s when Roger Ebert wrote the first review of it.
Kent: It was a very important review. It was wonderful to be able to thank him in person when I ran into him at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983.
Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 1, 1982, rogerebert.com): “Class of 1984” is not a great movie but it works with quiet, strong efficiency to achieve more or less what we expect from a movie with such a title. It is violent, funny, scary, contains boldly outlined characters, and gets us involved. … You may or may not think it’s any good, but you’ll have to admit that it works. … “Class of 1984” is raw, offensive, vulgar, and violent, but it contains the sparks of talent and wit, and it is acted and directed by people who cared to make it special.
Kent: Newsweek called it “‘Blackboard Jungle’ with herpes.” My mother wasn’t very impressed when she saw that.
Jack Kroll (Newsweek critic, Aug. 30, 1982): One of the nastiest movies of our time, it pretends to be horrified by endemic violence in our schools while actually exploiting violence with a coldblooded cynicism that’s worse than the violence itself.
Scharpling: I saw it opening weekend in a packed theatre on my birthday. Everybody was just screaming and cheering – full on up on their feet. The kids were losing their minds. It was such a moving communal experience that I’ve never gotten over it – I guess because I was 12 when I saw it.
Kent: By virtue of the earnings of the finished motion picture, we wound up with “Class of 1984” being in the top 10 per cent of Canadian productions in terms of return on investment to investors. And at that early stage in our film industry, that was no small feat. That was quite an accomplishment.
With its successful theatrical run and multiple iterations on home video, the film has gained a rabid worldwide following.
Lester: I’ve been invited all over the world with this movie. At the Stiges Film Festival (in Spain in 2012) people came dressed up as the characters. It still has resonance.
Langlois: It’s such a cult movie that people even want to go to the locations where it was shot.
Keir-La Janisse (fan): I lived in Toronto twice for like a year each. I worked at Suspect Video and would walk past Central Tech all the time on my way to work, which was my favourite part of living in Toronto. All the people who went to school there had no idea that they were going in and out of this iconic building every day that had this other life they didn’t know about.
In 2014, I was trying to pitch an art teacher there on the idea of letting me do a screening and we could raise money for a fledgling arts program at the school. But I think there was a reluctance to be associated with the film because the school already had a reputation for being a bit rough.
(Toronto film programmer) Peter Kuplowsky had also been looking into doing a screening at the school, and we found out about each other’s efforts. In 2018, we ended up putting on a screening at the Royal Theatre. I had arranged a chartered bus tour, which would start at Central Tech.
Langlois: I didn’t get into any costume or anything, but I drove around (with them).
Janisse: We went to like 30 different locations. We ended at the Royal, and all the people who were on the bus had tickets for the screening, so Peter and I put on two different things, but we joined them.
Lester: It’s my favourite movie I’ve made because it’s the one where I conceived the whole idea. It was my auteur movie. It was just a world that I created.
Kent: It’s not exactly the storyline that many of us might want to show on the top our CVs. On the other hand, how can you not be proud of it when actors and filmmakers of such ability really, really put out?
Scharpling: If I made “Class of 1984,” I would be so proud of it because it’s just perfect. It’s everything it promises it’s going to be. It’s the ultimate version of that kind of movie.
King: There must be more to the film than I can see because I can’t see much more than an unnecessarily violent, simple revenge movie. It sure ain’t my performance. I don’t know what it is.
Janisse: I don’t know how much it resonates for people outside of Toronto, but there are a lot of locations, like record stores, that are not there anymore. So, the film stands as a time (capsule) of a lot that isn’t there anymore. Yet this school stands like this iconic thing. It is the thing that survives.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DOUG BROD
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