I wanted to watch some 80s slasher schlock after watching two films in the 101 Horror Films You Must See Before You Die book, the blaxploitation classic Blacula and the legendarily suspenseful thriller Diabolique, and lucky for me I had a copy of Cutting Class lying around.
Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch) has returned to his hometown after receiving treatment in a psychological hospital for causing a car accident that killed his father. His welcome is far from warm as his classmates and old friends Paula (Jill Schoelen) and Dwight (Brad Pitt) publicly humiliate and exclude him from parties. Shortly after Brian’s arrival people begin to go missing at the school. This gives the already fearful community an excuse to crucify Brian. Is he really the psychotic murderer everyone believes him to be, or is he being set up by a real psychopath?
Cutting Class is a movie that punishes you for asking questions. Why is this California High School so well funded? Why did they make that choice in editing? What happened to the bloodhound with the doughnut? Just turn off your brain and enjoy because it turns out none of your questions matter and the killer is exactly who you’re supposed to think it isn’t.
That is to say I got exactly what I wanted out of Cutting Class. An 80s slasher with stupid jokes, babyfaced Brad Pitt, and extremely brutal kills (look forward to the trampoline kill towards the end). If Cutting Class was made 7 years later you might think it was an homage to the genre instead of a quintessential example of the form. Cutting Class is such a perfect example of the shitty teen slasher that it feels like a rough draft of Scream without all the meta commentary about the “rules” of horror. It’s almost like Wes Craven saw Cutting Class and thought “Oh, I could do this, but better.”
Cutting Class is a horror film but none of the gory murders are as terrifying as the way Jill Schoelen’s character is ogled by nearly every man in the movie. Not just her two age-appropriate love interests but nearly every member of the faculty too. The art teacher, the principal, and the custodian all make gross double entendres about her or flat out orchestrate situations where they peek up her skirt. There’s ladies locker room scenes, a scene where a cheerleader isn’t wearing underwear, and an improbably awkward scene where a nearly nude Paula is cornered in her bathroom while washing her hair. It’s almost like Cutting Class was written by, populated with, and produced for perverts.
Brutalizing women seems to be pretty par for the course in horror movies. From the metaphoric rape of a vampire bite, to the phallic symbolism blades in slasher films, to the… literal rapes in Evil Dead II and I Spit on Your Grave, it’s almost like by simply BEING a woman in a horror film, you’re asking for it. It’s a horrible double edged sword. Congrats, you’re the female lead in a horror film! Your character is almost certainly going to be sexually assaulted or at least openly sexualized. That simply isn’t the case with male leads. Show me another genre with the same percentage of sexual assaults against men as horror has against women. I don’t think that genre exists.
What really chills my blood about Cutting Class is the adults who’re leering after this young woman are in positions of authority. They all work at her high school, no part of this is treaded as problematic. None of the characters get caught, or chastised, or, as one might expect in a horror film, symbolically killed as punishment for violating social norms. It’s almost like the audience is expected to agree that peeking up a teenager’s skirt is a totally normal and acceptable indulgence. Maybe they did in 1989, maybe they do now?
Let’s shake off that disgusting topic and move on to the cast! Cutting Class stars Brad Pitt whose acting reminded me of something I’d heard about his performance in Ocean’s Eleven. Apparently Pitt insisted on having something to eat in almost every scene in Ocean’s Eleven, watch the movie, he’s always eating. He does the same thing in Cutting Class! He’s either drinking a beer, or eating an apple, or eating a hot dog or SOMETHING. I want to know everything I can about this aspect of his process. Is it that thing where actors get nervous when they don’t have something to do with their hands? Who knows? Brad Pitt, that’s who. Ask him if you get the opportunity.
There are other recognizable faces in Cutting Class besides Brad Pitt. Donovan Leitch bears a striking resemblance to Nice Peter, the creative force behind the YouTube channel Epic Rap Battles of History. I spent most of the movie referring to his character as Peter because I am dumb. Jill Schoelen is famous in my house for her role in Babes in Toyland, Martin Mull plays her dad and is TV’s Gene Parmesan, and Brenda James who plays Paula’s best friend Colleen holds a precious place in film history because she played Brenda Gutierrez in James Gunn’s alien-slug-monster movie Slither. Her performance is integral to the success of that film and thereby James Gunn’s career, ergo thank her for Guardians of the Galaxy.
Brenda actually isn’t the only connection between Cutting Class and Slither. I assume we’re all familiar with the dramatic principal of Chekhov’s Gun? It’s the idea that every element of a story should be significant and consequential and that everything else should be removed. The specific reference to the gun is that if you introduce a gun in the first act it needs to go off by/in the third. Both Cutting Class and Slither make use of a variant of Chekhov’s Gun I call Chekhov’s Dud (if this concept already exists and I don’t know about it let me know what it’s really called). That’s when you introduce a device that’s set up to explode in act three but just fizzles out like a bad firework. A dud. James Gunn introduces a confiscated hand grenade that the police keep as a souvenir in Slither, only for it to fall out of the hero’s hand and explode inconsequentially in a backyard swimming pool at the film’s climax. Early on in Cutting Class we see Brad Pitt learning about sodium’s explosive reaction to water in chemistry class. By the third act he hurls a saxophone sized yellow rock he believes to be sodium and it into a puddle of water… only to realize the rock wasn’t sodium at all. Classic.
If you like 80s slashers, creative kills, and can overcome the exploitative sexualization of high school girls then Cutting Class might be for you.