Friday, June 03, 2011

Daalder at AFA: Massacre at Central High

It is sort of the anti-Beautiful Boy. There is no hand-wringing or soul searching over why a tightly wound high student starts killing his classmates. Kids, killing is always wrong, but just like in classic EC Comics, many of young David’s victims sort of have it coming in Rene Daalder’s Massacre at Central High (trailer here), which screens during the Anthology Film Archives upcoming Daalder retrospective.

David is the classic lone wolf type, but the mid-year transfer student has entre into Central’s ruling clique through his friend Mark. Though we never get the details, the action-oriented David did him a major solid years ago. Now that Mark’s fortunes have reversed, he wants to return the favor. However, David is having none of his thuggish elitist gang. The instant dislike is mutual. On the other hand, Mark’s girlfriend Theresa recognizes David’s integrity. Trouble is inevitable. When David, an avid runner, is hobbled by the Mark’s running mates, he loses his outlet for his rage. Revenge will fill the void. At this point, Central gets a wee bit subversive.

It is no secret David is offing the campus bullies. In fact, his popularity soars as a result. For about ten seconds or so, Central becomes an idyllic community—and then it becomes Lord of the Flies. Clearly, Central argues human nature abhors a vacuum. Suddenly, there is an opening at the top of the social food chain, which many of the formerly tormented covet. Naturally, they try to form alliances with David, but he does not react well to their hypocrisy.

In between creative death scenes and the occasional skinny dipping, Central offers some shrewd commentary on the nature of power and those who desire it. It is worth noting one of Central’s most cravenly opportunistic power seekers is Spoony, the hippie dude, played by Robert Carradine. (Imagine this film on a double bill with Revenge of the Nerds.)

In a further irony of casting, Central features two future Eight is Enough alumnus in radically different high school contexts. Kimberly Beck (Nancy in the pilot only) is a bit awkward at times, but not terrible as Theresa, while Lani O’Grady (Mary) is convincingly spacey as the evil flower child Jane. Though he hardly looks physically imposing, Derrel Maury projects psycho intensity quite well. Yet, Andrew Stevens, later to specialize in naughty late night cable thrillers, probably shows the most complex dimensions as the thoroughly conflicted Mark.

There is a temptation to overstate the allegorical aspects of Central. Daalder certainly offers some psychological insights, but it still delivers for the drive-in market (indeed, the accompanying picture has been strategically cropped). Still, it is rather invigorating to see exploitation done with such ambition. An odd but entertaining combination of camp and existentialism, Central deserves its cult status. Adventurous film lovers should definitely see Central on the big screen while they can, as the centerpiece of AFA’s highly recommended Daalder series, this coming Thursday (6/9) through Sunday (6/12).