Thursday, November 18, 2010

Origins of Totalitarianism

"Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within."

-- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For a throwaway exploitation movie from the mid-1970s, Rene Daalder's Massacre at Central High (1976) sure does stick in the mind in spite of its long absence from home video. Its conspicuous absence on DVD has more to do with the uncomfortable similarity of its theme to the rash of school shootings in the intervening years than it does with the relative quality of the film. Mind you, it's not a masterpiece. It has that flat "look" of a 1970s After School Special and it's saddled with an absolutely abominable score (a fact even the director of the film concedes). The performances from a cast of familiar, but not too familiar, actors are mostly functional at best. Seriously, no one ever hired Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for her acting chops, and Andrew Stevens was just competent enough to have a further career in the twilight world of Shannon Tweed direct to video erotic thrillers. Robert Carradine is just about the only better-than-competent actor in the film. The lead is Darrel Maury, who had a reasonable career as a TV actor. He's just "off" enough for the role, but he's not good enough to make it sinister. This is a flaw.

The story here is what's interesting. Maury plays David, a new kid at the titular high school. On his first day, he runs afoul of the elite cadre of bullies who rule the school under their iron heel. He takes a dislike to them, and the feeling is mutual, until David hooks up with his friend, Mark, who kinda sorta runs the bullies. David looks the other way and everyone lives and lets live until David stumbles across an incident where the bullies, led by bete noir Bruce, are in the midst of gang-raping a girl. To this, David cannot look away, and the bullies cannot take his silence as a given. They show up to menace David as he's working on his car and accidentally crush his leg under a wheel. For the moment, the film plays out like any other run of the mill exploitation revenge film, with David executing his revenge with grisly efficiency, making each death look like an accident. The one that sticks in my mind is the swimming pool scene, in which a diver takes off from the board in the dark only to have the lights come up and reveal no water below him. Then something weird happens. David's revenge is over far too quickly. The movie still has a way to go. There's method in this, because once the bullies are gone, there's a power vacuum, and the oppressed kids begin to vie for elite status. Each faction, recognizing that David is the power player, tries to enlist his aid, not counting on the fact that David is disgusted by the whole thing. Then the movie earns its title, as David decides to take out the whole stinking lot. He has to destroy the village in order to save it.

Clearly, there's a political parable in this movie. It is not lost on me that the kids who form the initial elite are snotty, affluent white kids, while the oppressed include the political leftists, the disabled, and women. I don't even know if this is a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers or if it arose naturally from the power structures it is sending up. Not that it matters. There's a weird absence of adult authority in this movie, too, which is suggestive. Is there a broader society, or is this it? And if there's a broader society, why are they looking the other way? Are they enabling the formation of fascist social structures? Why? The conversion of the free-speech hippie character (Carradine) into a fascist is downright prescient, given the political history of America subsequent to this movie's release. When I first saw the film as a teen, I thought the political commentary was pretty awesome. As an adult, it depresses me. It's a little too pointed.

Meanwhile, the film doesn't skimp on the exploitation elements. There's plenty of nudity and gore to appease an audience looking for nudity and gore. It's creative in its killings, too, which is refreshing in a sector of film where the phallic implications of a knife are exploited to the exclusion of most other forms of mayhem. One set of characters, involved in a threesome (yay for polyamory, I guess), is done in by a boulder dropped on their make-out tent. One character is dropped into electric lines by a sabotaged hang-glider. In a scene possibly inspired by The Big Combo, one kid is killed by his own hearing aid. The catalog of mayhem here is impressive, but, of course, it's not what people remember about the movie. In an exploitation movie, that's some kind of achievement.

No comments: