Lionsgate // 1985 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 12th, 2004
Behind these "nice" school walls...a teacher's nightmare! A teenage jungle!
Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, West Side Story, Twin Peaks) is trouble with a capital "T." Newly arrived at Santo Bello High School from the tough inner-city streets of Chicago, this lithe, dancer-like juvenile delinquent has a chip on his shoulder the size of Wrigley Field and is not afraid to throw it at anyone who gets in his way. Living with his oversexed aunt (Mamie Van Doren) and playing by his own set of street-smart rules, it's not long before Tony takes over all the rackets in his latest educational institution. He becomes class clown, Number One troublemaker, president of the main car club gang, and chief pusher of that most demonic of all late-'50s drugs...pot! Good thing too, since his new high society sweetheart is hooked, like a preseason perch, on the wacky tobacky.
In between hot rod racing and avoiding the advances of his large-chested guardian, Tony wants to expand his empire. He's looking to aid his fellow classmates in riding the white horse, and wants to find a big-time operator to help him score the skin-popping saddle. When the mysterious Mr. A (Jackie Coogan, The Kid, The Addams Family) agrees to provide him with as many bareback journeys as he can juggle, the level of criminality increases ten-fold. Suddenly, it's no longer blackboards and hall lockers; it's strung-out debutante junkies and police sting operations. Just who is on what side of the law, and how this entire mess gets sorted out, becomes the basis for another insider look at that den of inequity known as the post-WWII public school. When all is said and done, this case file can be marked High School Confidential!
So hyper-hip that it could cause long dead Daddy-Os to rise from the grave, and filled to the brim with enough incoherent lingo to make Ebonics look like Old English, High School Confidential! is a dated exposé that plays, in the new millennium, like a camp episode of 21 Jump Street. Featuring the standard "mature" teenagers spouting slang and shunning authority along with occasional rants against dope and delinquency, this classic crust of corn has enough breathless kitsch to keep parents up at night, wondering where their children really are.
Everything in this movie is in your face and right out of the starting gate. Before we even get a chance to catch our breath, there's a boogie-woogie cameo by Jerry Lee Lewis. Then Russ Tamblyn's jerk with a power struggle jones starts spouting late '50s jive like a beat poet on payday. Within the span of 20 minutes, this seven-year high school student with the predilection for arcane language is big man on campus, leader of the local hot rod gang, dating the high maintenance hottie from the right side of the tracks, and trafficking in illegal narcotics, just for kicks. We've also been exposed to some of the worst coffee house verse this side of Jewel, and gratuitous, uncredited Michael Landon just waiting around for his turn as a matriculating lycanthrope. The rest of the plot is simply propaganda gravy, the standard potboiler machinations of the message motion picture machinery. When the "big secret" to the storyline is revealed, when the real reason for this pre-tabloid take on the more sensational aspects of secondary education is disclosed, the realization of the ruse taints everything that came before it with a scent of exploitation desperation.
For a while High School Confidential! is jaw-droppingly delightful. Just seeing all the supposedly cool cats expanding the usual vocabulary is a hoot and a half. But as the movie meanders along, some of the situations start to get downright strange. In light of the ending, just what was up with Mamie Van Doren's Aunt Gwen? If she's in on the racket, why is she trying to seduce her nephew? And if she's not, how utterly stupid and aggressively sexual is she? Or what of the drug kingpin himself, Mr. A? Is he so out of touch with modern dope dealing that he can't sniff out an undercover cop when one tries to muscle in on his territory? Or is he just too busy banging on the crazy 88s at his juke joint to really care? The students are all nameless, faceless fools who seem robotic in response to any egotistical tool that talks tough to them, and the adult community is so awash in social drinking that they can't recognize when their daughters are hopped up on goofballs. It's incongruities like these that propel the film into its amusing malaise of mediocrity, keeping it seated in the B-movie mode it so tries to overcome.
But it's all of the non-stop Leo Gorcey gobbledygook that really stitches the pitch. Like a middle-aged arrested adolescent trying to "rap" to the younger generation, this old fogies' view of modern miscreant vernacular would be uproarious if it wasn't so completely out of touch. Just hearing Drew Barrymore's dad, John, going on a Lord Buckley-style bender over Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the new, non-"square" world is enough to have your grammar rodeo in pandemonium for decades. His classroom cut-up routine is like stand-up comedy for the learning disabled. Yet it's all part of High School Confidential!'s way too cool be-bop BS. How else can you preach to the perverted if they don't dig your party line, capisce?
But perhaps the biggest problem with High School Confidential! is that it doesn't really know what side of the fence it wants to keep its focus on. Most of the movie is a parents' home companion to the possible wages of sin their kindred may find themselves in. Police Commissioners are shown describing marijuana to distrusting teachers, and other authority figures teeter between understanding and condemnation. All of this narcotics nonsense must have really set the shorthairs on end when it arrived in the theaters in 1958 and, indeed, High School Confidential! has had quite a reputation as a scandalous look at the formative years gone wild.
But there is very little of said post-adolescent antics on exhibit here: a little car racing, some casual petting, but nothing suggesting an entire generation in the throngs of outrageous delinquent behavior. The ignorant zombies wandering the halls of learning like future carhops and mechanics in training seem superficial, not significant in their portrayal of disaffected youth. In light of such superior JD junk like High School Bigshot, Daddy-O, or the rock-around-the-clock conceits of The Blackboard Jungle, these jaded gymboree jokes are just contract players in patent leather shoes, peg pants and slicked-back hair.
Tamblyn is okay, channeling the near-illiterate dialogue in smarmy style, but the rest of the cast, from the blousy Van Doren (who does look damn good, mind you) to the mousy Diane Jergens (as the pot-addicted Joan) are far too earnest in their attempts at relating to the reform school retards at whom this film is aimed. With such a tawdry, telling title as High School Confidential!, the accompanying movie should be one insanely cheesy classic moment after another. But after a decent start, the film crumbles under its own anti-dope delirium.
Lions Gate, which picked up this title along with the rest of Artisan's acrid output when it bought the digital dipsticks, stays with its acquisition's ideals when it comes to DVD releases. High School Confidential! is a vacant vacuum of a disc, barebones and without a single contextual extra. We are treated to a play/scene selection menu and that's it. On the sound and vision side, the elements are acceptable. The 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen image (which is mislabeled on the DVD cover as a 1.33:1 full frame presentation) is decent, but lacks the deep blacks to make the monochrome contrast rich and resonate. The black and white here looks more gray on gray than pictorial polar opposites. Aside from Jerry Lee Lewis and his piano-pounding beat, the Dolby Digital Mono doesn't have much to work with. The dialogue is clear and the other ambient ersatz rock and roll is presented with aural authenticity. But this is still a dreary, lifeless lesson in single-channel sonics.
Too bad that High School Confidential! is so equally one-sided. Had the student body shown a little life and less concentration on jester-like jive talkin', a groovy, real-gone concoction could have been created. Instead, this mostly lifeless lesson in agenda overkill can't help but fall flat as a floogie. And you can look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated