NOW THAT THE BRUTALITY in Littleton, Colorado has moved off the front pages and the experts have all drawn their predictably wrong conclusions (watch out for kids who wear black; get more metal detectors in schools), the time has probably come to point out how familiar--even ubiquitous--this supposedly shocking and alien event is. Whatever other delusions might have been flitting through those kids' unstable minds, the revenge fantasy that they acted out is straight out of the movies. In fact, revenge--either on authorities or (more often of late) popular kids--is probably the most common theme in films about school, and the reason is obvious: Jocks, socialites, and other "beautiful people" just don't grow up and make movies; lonely nerds do, and when they reflect on their formative years, a lot of time and talent is spent settling old scores. The worst offenders are by no means those filmmakers aiming to reach kid audiences, either, with their John Hughes-type morality plays or the latest Scream rip-off; rather, the more self-consciously "adult" and "artistic" the movie is, the more violent and disturbing the revenge fantasy.


ZERO FOR CONDUCT

(dir. Jean Vigo, 1933)

The wellspring for all that follows, to the point that a few films mentioned below are practically remakes. One of the most purely sensual films ever made, Zero for Conduct is dazzling in its link of the students' burgeoning sexuality, and their rebellion against the cruel teachers and masters of the school. Not that the revolution on display is particularly bloody; just an alumni-day celebration disrupted with a storm of books, old shoes, and stones hurled down from the rooftop. Like all anarchists, Vigo was an idealist, and he expected authority to be sufficiently shamed by the mere appearance of their downfall. The planning of the event, however--the recruitment of new forces, the storing of "ammunition" in the attic--is as meticulous and secretive as only self-dramatizing adolescents can be.


IF...

(dir. Lindsay Anderson, 1969)

There are two major changes in the 36 years from Zero for Conduct to this film: the protagonists have aged into fumbling adulthood, and the weapons have changed to real guns. For all the exhilarating chaos of the final shoot-out, this is a rather cool and distant film, very self-conscious in its use of surrealism and satire. Even the constant shifts in film stock, from color to black and white, seem designed more to keep you out than draw you in. That's only fair, since if Vigo used a schoolyard to show how children are kept passive, here the education system is only a blatant stand-in for everything the late 20th century seemed to offer. It's only proper that the final bullets in the movie should be fired upon the audience.


CARRIE

(dir. Brian DePalma, 1976)

The definitive high-school revenge film, and a clear turning point. Before this still-shockingly visceral, unapologetic blast of rage, the perpetrators of violence were always a small band of outsiders, and the victims were those in authority. Carrie rewrote the rules, first by replacing teachers and deans in the role of the "deserving" victims with fellow students; second by refusing to stint or hold back on the viciousness of the payback. Now everyone gets it in the end. If that seems unfair, well, tough. Who else but DePalma could so accurately portray an attitude no one else wants to admit they have? After this and Massacre at Central High, the notion of group rebellion against figures of power would only get trotted out for broad comedy (Rock 'n' Roll High School) or sad, critical studies of suburban anomie (Over the Edge). From Carrie on, the school revenge film belongs to the brutalized loner who is, more often than not, willing to make everyone suffer.


MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH

(dir. Renee Daalder, 1976)

Smaller-scaled and less wantonly cruel than Carrie (well, what wouldn't be?), this is still a key transitional film from the sociological/political realm of earlier high-school revenge movies to the personal vendettas that dominate today. The nasties this time are an arrogant gang of bullies who terrorize the weaker students, and their subsequent executions are designed for maximum viewer enjoyment. The film's greatest attribute is the attention it pays to the school's social hierarchy; how every vacuum left by a murdered bully is quickly filled. The more things change....


HEATHERS

(dir. Michael Lehmann, 1989)

Of course you laughed. It's funny when Heather's tongue turns blue and she crashes through the table, or when the underwear-clad jocks get shot in the woods. Humor can be liberating, but also shrewdly calculating. By recasting the whole genre as black comedy, the filmmakers get to eat their cake and have it too, exposing the notion of revenge as ridiculous, while delivering it in spades. Adults are almost wholly absent now, except as obtuse observers who have no idea of the real tortures and back-stabbings of teen life--which is why Christian Slater's idea of passing off his final slaughter as mass suicide is both so hilarious and poignant: there probably are a lot of people who would have bought it.


BASKETBALL DIARIES

(dir. Scott Kalvert, 1994)

Messy, pretentious, and fatally confused about what it's about and when it takes place, this self-indulgent portrait of teen drug use quickly spirals into unwatchable realms, except for one scene: outfitted in a black trench coat, Leonardo DiCaprio's brief, smack-fueled fantasy of shooting up his schoolmates (and, almost incidentally, his most hated teacher) while his friends cheer him on is riveting, precisely because it's so cheerily distasteful. The scene's force stems from the anonymity of the victims; these aren't even familiar faces, just boys we've vaguely spotted in the background before, who've got the bad luck to be in the way when the pressure hits the boiling point. Then the shock value fades and the pointlessness returns.

Support The Stranger