Before Brad Pitt the Superstar, there was Brad Pitt the struggling actor. Not long after the young would-be thespian was donning a giant chicken suit for the El Pollo Loco fast-food chain, standing around and looking pretty as an extra in various movies or the occasional guest spot on TV’s Growing Pains, Pitt grabbed his first feature role in a slasher film. Starring alongside the pure-as-snow scream queen Jill Schoelen (who was dating Pitt at the time) and Donovan Leitch (son of the legendary hippie folkie Donovan, and brother of Ione Skye), Brad Pitt shines bright in the 1989 horror film Cutting Class.
Rospo Pallenberg (what a name!) was in the director's chair for the first time on this fun fright flick. Pallenberg cut his teeth on the scripts he wrote or collaborated on for genre director John Boorman, including the gonzo Exorcist sequel, the camp classic Exorcist II: The Heretic. Steve Slavkin made his writing debut on Cutting Class, a few years before he went over to Nickelodeon and created the best kiddie-camping show featuring a character named Donkey Lips; I’m talking of course about Salute Your Shorts. I’m not going to go ahead and say Pallenberg and Slavkin created the DNA for future self-referential horror films like Scream all the way down to this year’s hullabaloo Cabin in the Woods, but Cutting Class, along with 1988’s Waxwork, certainly laid down some tracks for those films to coast on.
The film starts innocuously enough with a young Ryan Reynolds (Ok, it’s not really Ryan Reynolds, but I’d love to check out the dental records of actor Steven Kobrin just make sure) bicycling through the hilly California suburbs, tossing newspapers on the meticulously manicured lawns, while Wall of Voodoo (Andy Prieboy era, not the great Stan Ridgway era) pounds away on the soundtrack. The headlines read a local teenager has just been released from the mental hospital, after he’s convicted of his father’s death, a hinky vehicle accident in which the brake lines had been cut. A man in full duck-hunting gear squats, grabs the paper and shakes his head. This is the local District Attorney and father of our heroine, Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen). Cult actor Martin Mull plays the D.A., all stumbling and bumbling; a performance that just screams out “when can I cash my check?”. Mull is embarking on a short mallard bagging trek, and he leaves his daughter with those familiar words “No boys over at the house and no cutting class!” Paula’s boyfriend is Dwight (Brad Pitt), tearing ass in a top-down Mustang through residential streets and barely mowing down kids on their Hot Wheels. He’s in a hurry of course to pick up his girl from school, and you know...maybe get some sugar. He’s one charming son of a gun, what with his moussed locks, feisty devil may care attitude and that sly grin that would soon melt every woman’s heart in a few years time.
Enter Brian (Donovan Leitch) as the teenager who’s fresh from the booby hatch. Like a poor man’s poor man’s poor man’s Norman Bates, Leitch is all moody and broody here, the weird kid, the outcast who’s obsessed with Paula. As a matter of fact, most people at the high school are obsessed with Paula. There’s Roddy McDowell camping it up as the pervert principal trying to get Paula to bend over and try out a new cheerleader uniform, an art teacher getting Paula to pose in a unitard in awkward positions for a sketch class, and Dwight himself, who just can’t seem to get Paula out of that pleated skirt. Such is the appeal of Jill Schoelen, who portrayed many a demure damsel in distress at the time, from The Stepfather to Robert Englund’s The Phantom of the Opera to the sadly forgotten Popcorn. She exudes innocence, and won’t let Dwight get the goods unless “he gets his grades up”.
Meanwhile, bodies are dropping like flies. Mull is bow and arrowed in the stomach while duck hunting in the marsh,, and he doesn’t...quite...die. Trust me, Pallenberg and Slavkin use this for great comedic relief. Students are gettin’ it in various ways, as are teachers and various other faculty. There’s death by xerox machine. There’s death by oven. And, in Eli Roth’s favorite scene, there’s “trampoline impalement”. Remember his Thanksgiving faux-trailer? Yep, that’s what I’m talking about. I actually spit out my popcorn in the theater when I saw that while watching Grindhouse. The nerve! All signs are pointing to Brian the creepy kid, but....is it? Or is it...Dwight the possessive boyfriend with anger management issues? There are McGuffins aplenty and to this day I forget who’s doing the killing when I watch it over the years, all thanks to Slavkin’s savvy script and Pallenberg’s pacing.
Cutting Class never takes itself seriously, thankfully, right down to the “hyuk hyuk” last line and freeze frame (freeze frame!). It knows it’s a suburban slasher film, and by 1989, I think we were all a little tired of the formula. It masterfully plays with conventions, throws logic out the door with a wink and just when you think you were wrong, you were right the whole time. Rospo Pallenberg never directed another film after this, unfortunately. Scott Slavkin of course gave us Bobby Budnick, Jill Schoelen broke up with Pitt and made a few more horror flicks playing the breathy innocent girl to a T, Donovan Leitch did a few minor movies and one great episode of 21 Jump Street (“Mike’s P.O.V.”), and Brad Pitt went on to making me figure out how the hell you do that with your abs in Fight Club. p> I have to make a special mention for Robert Glaudini’s performance as Shultz the Custodian. Every time he walks in frame with that “Just what the fuck is going on here?” look, I laugh and tip my beer to him. He’s got the best line in the movie, and I won’t ruin what it is. You’ll know it when you hear it.