23 April 2014

(1976)

Strident in its own right, 1976's luridly titled Massacre At Central High (AKA Blackboard Massacre) is 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.

Long before the term became a cliché, director and writer Renee Daalder served up this cautionary "revenge of the nerds" offering. It's worth a look and it is a shame it hasn't been more widely seen.

David (Derrel Maury) is a new student at Central High in Southern California. The school is run on a social order dictated by a group of four bullies: Bruce (Ray Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond), Paul (Damon Douglas) and Mark (Andrew Stevens).

An accomplished sprinter, David has a hard time making friends during his first day. People avoid him, including Spoony (Robert Carradine), who is the butt of jokes from the bullies. Theresa (Kimberly Beck) is one of the few students who will even acknowledge David and he finds her attractive.

Mark, who is more compassionate than his thug friends, has known David for some time and he promises to protect him. It turns out Theresa is Mark's girlfriend, much to David's disappointment.

At their urging, David joins Mark and his friends for a ride around town in Paul's van. They come across another student named Rodney (Steve Sikes) and hop into his car, taking the hapless fellow for a joy ride and wrecking his vehicle in the process. David is not amused.

Mark confides in Theresa about his concern for David - who is clearly not fitting in. Meanwhile, Mark's other friends continue to terrorize the school...finding particular pleasure in ridiculing nerdy Oscar (Jeffrey Winner) in the gym and locker room.

Bruce, the ringleader, is unhappy with David's non-participation and Mark encourages David to lighten up and become more of a member of the group. Mark tells Bruce that David is just "aloof."

David continues to alienate himself by befriending Rodney and offering to fix his jalopy. He is also sympathetic to Arthur (Dennis Kort), who works in the library and has to contend with the books being tossed around. David asks him, "Don't you people ever fight back?"

When the gang assaults Jane (Lain O'Grady) and Mary (Rainbeaux Smith), David finally has had enough. He comes to their rescue and physically attacks Bruce, Craig and Paul.

Theresa witnesses the fight and although initially appalled by David's lack of self-control...she understands. David tells her that "the anger just builds up and takes over."

With their power threatened, the gloves come off and the bullies hatch a plan to put David in his place.

Minus Mark, they stop by David's home where he is busy working underneath Rodney's car. Bruce makes the vehicle fall on top of him, crushing one of his legs and ruining his chances of ever running again.

While in the hospital, David refuses to see anyone and blames his injury on an accident. When he returns to school, Bruce thanks him for not implicating his group. "Ratting on people is not my style," David tells him.

No, David has his own plans for retribution. In short order, he rigs Bruce's hand glider, causing it to crash into a power line and electrocute him; he tricks Craig into jumping into an empty pool and smashing his head; and he traps Paul in his van...which goes over a cliff and erupts in a fiery explosion.

Mark begins to fear for his own life and Theresa begs David not to kill him. At Central High, things have changed considerably as some of the students who were once at the mercy of the deceased begin to take over - and impose their sudden privileged status on the others. Individually, they clumsily try to form alliances with David.

David quickly becomes disillusioned and decides to take action, systematically killing them off. Mark confronts his former friend in his workshed with the intention of shooting him but David gets the upper hand. He locks both Mark and Theresa in the shed while he heads back to Central High for his final plan: to blow up the entire school during the alumni prom.

Theresa and Mark escape and head towards the building. David sees the couple and pleads with them to leave before the bomb goes off. When they refuse, David has no choice but to abort his mission.

He grabs the bomb and runs out of the building, where it detonates in his hands. As bewildered onlookers wonder what happened, Mark and Theresa decide to tell the authorities it was the work of some of the students whom David killed and that he died a hero while trying to save the school from being destroyed.

Few teen revenge horrors combine so well the stark power and earnest sincerity of Massacre At Central High. 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. A prototype for all 'displaced adolescents' efforts that have come since, Massacre continues to remain near the top.

Director Renee Daalder's career has been brief. He didn't helm another film until 1986's Population One...followed by two films over a decade later, Habitat (1997) and Hysteria (1998).

Massacre benefited from an interesting and able cast. Among them, Andrew Stevens continued in the genre in Day of the Animals (1977), Brian de Palma's psychic opus The Fury (1978) and 1981's suds thriller The Seduction. Although he works mostly as a producer these days, he occasionally returns to acting.

Kimberly Beck would later star as Trish Jarvis in 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, while superhunk Steve Bond appeared in The Prey (1981) and soon after, landed a stint on General Hospital. Lead Derrel Maury now runs an acting studio and teaches his craft to youths through their teens.

Tragically, Lani O'Grady (who would find fame as Mary Bradford in the hit series Eight Is Enough) died on September 25, 2001 of a drug overdose. Rainbeaux "Cheryl" Smith, who played her best friend in Massacre, died the following year of hepatitis.


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