In much the same way that He Knows You’re Alone will always be associated with the first screen appearance of Tom Hanks, it is impossible to discuss the 1989 straight-to-video slasher Cutting Class without referencing the involvement of a young Brad Pitt, just two years shy of his breakout role in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise. Whilst hardly a standout on his résumé, it marked his first role in a feature film after a string of television appearances and uncredited cameos. Cutting Class would be produced during an era in which horror had once again become a dirty word and so filmmakers were apprehensive about delivering a product that could be considered offensive or controversial. The days of Maniac and The New York Ripper were long gone and even the Friday the 13th franchise had grown tame and blood free. The slasher had since been replaced by the more respectable psychological thriller and Freddy and his cohorts had started to lose appeal with popular culture. Thus, Cutting Class would cater more towards this safe market than the bloodthirsty Savini-style splatter flicks which had populated theatres just a few years earlier.
The film would mark the first and only directorial effort of Rospo Pallenberg, a screenwriter formally involved with such projects as Exorcist II: The Heretic and Excalibur. Working from a script by first-time scribe Steve Slavkin, the movie would take many of the conventions previously exploited by the slasher film and combine them with a cynical high school portrayal that had become common with the likes of Heathers, released just four months earlier. Filmed on location at Excelsior High School in Norwalk, California, Cutting Class would make its way direct to VHS, released in America in July 1989, the same month as Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and just a few weeks before A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5: The Dream Child (both of which would mark a financial low point for each respective franchise). Cutting Class would make little impact upon its initial release, finally resurfacing after the success of Brad Pitt some years later.
William Carson (Martin Mull) is a district attorney who has decided to take up hunting in an effort to relax and sets out on a weekend of ducking shooting, leaving his level headed daughter Paula (Jill Schoelen) behind on the understanding that she behaves and does not skip school. But whilst out in the swamplands he is stalked and shot by an unseen psycho with a bow and arrow. Following her father’s instructions, Paula makes her way to school (unaware of her his fate) and, during gym class, realises that one of her classmates, the shy and creepy Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch), is staring at her. Attracting the jealousy of her boyfriend, Dwight Ingalls (Brad Pitt), Brian finds himself at the receiving end of a lighthearted prank which results in him being punished by the teacher. That afternoon, Dwight confronts Brian and warns him to stay away from Paula, stating that while they were once friends the fact that Brian had been institutionalised means that he no longer wants to know him. During an art class in which Paula is posing, Brian is discovered to be spying on her and is forced to take part, before once again watching her as she is drooled over by the school principal (Roddy McDowall).
When Paula claims that she has homework which is due in the following morning, Dwight storms off in a mood and, unable to get his school books when the janitor refuses to allow him in the building, heads around to her house with his friend to get the school key from her so they can look through the confidential files, regardless of her desires to study. Heading back to school, Dwight finds Brian’s file and begins to read his notes, discovering that Brian had been admitted due to being a ‘violent schizophrenic’ who had received electro-convulsive treatment every day he had been institutionalised in an attempt to rid him of his psychotic tendencies. With the rumours quickly spreading around school, Brian finds himself the victim of ridicule from his fellow students. But as the kids fall victim to a killer has Brian’s old ways come back to haunt him or is there another maniac loose on campus?
Cutting Class boasted a selection of young talent who were on the brink of stardom, although sadly most of them would follow this film with poor career choices. Leitch had appeared the previous year in Chuck Russell’s enjoyable remake of The Blob as a potential boyfriend for Shawnee Smith, although he would meet his demise before the end of the first act. Schoelen, who would date Pitt shorty after completing the movie, had appeared in Wes Craven’s Chiller in 1985 and would later star alongside Robert Englund in The Phantom of the Opera and in the 1991 cult flick Popcorn. Pitt himself had been in little of interest prior to his turn as the obnoxious Dwight (who, at twenty five, was still stuck in high school roles), aside from a regular slot on Another World and a brief run on Dallas. He would eventually find stardom in 1991 when an appearance in a commercial for Levi’s Jeans would turn him into a pin up. In the role of the sleazy principal was McDowall, who had followed his popular role in the Planet of the Apes movies with the comedy horror Fright Night in 1985.
If Cutting Class suffers with anything it is its lack of atmosphere, with Pallenberg seemingly unable to generate suspense or terror, although Slavkin’s uninspired script does little to help. In fact, the film seems to work better as a teenage drama, a genre made popular at the time with the likes of John Hughes (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) and ‘brat pack’ flicks (St. Elmo’s Fire, The Breakfast Club). The story manages to capture the various frustrations of adolescence and the pressures of high school, but its attempts at exploring obsession and mental illness are its shortcomings. Pitt was yet to become a talented actor and here he is simply generic (although still far more talented than Johnny Depp was in his acting debut, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), although Leitch delivers an impressively creepy turn as the disturbed Brian. Whilst far from scary and boasting very little gore, Cutting Class still manages to entertain by being lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek which, whilst not being the main purpose of a horror, succeeds as a guilty pleasure.