Hidden Horrors of Peacock: Cutting Class

The slasher genre didn’t run out of steam by the end of the 1980s, but there was an increasing sense that the familiar formulas would need to be tweaked if audiences were going to stay interested. The boom of the first half of the decade was over, and while franchises were still churning along with sequels, new slashers were often trying new things to get noticed. Some of those new things were movies like Maniac Cop, while others were a bit more subtle. Which brings us to Cutting Class (now streaming on Peacock!), a movie which, despite its premise, isn’t subtle at all. 

Directed by Rospo Pallenberg from a script by Steve Slavkin, Cutting Class starts as a pretty standard slasher film on the surface. It takes place at an ordinary American high school, the main character is a nice cheerleader named Paula (Jill Schoelen), and there are whispers all over town about fellow student Brian (Donovan Leitch), who was just released from a mental institution years after allegedly killing his father. The meaner kids in town, including Paula’s basketball star boyfriend Dwight (Brad Pitt), are suspicious of Brian and all too happy to mock him for the darkness of his past. But Paula sees something else in her former friend, a kindness that’s just waiting to come back out. 

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Why You Should Revisit Cutting Class Starring Brad Pitt and Jill Schoelen 

Alas, Brian’s redemption isn’t so easy, especially when a killer starts picking off teachers and students, creating a sense of paranoia and dread throughout the school. Dwight’s reaction is to blame Brian and party through it, while Paula’s is to suspect something more complicated is up. Who’s right? Is Brian the town’s resident madman, or just a misunderstood kid? And if it’s the latter, who’s killing these people?

So we’ve got a pretty straightforward slasher whodunit with a twist, in that the prime suspect is not only right there in front of everyone, but a major character who influences the narrative in his own way. Slavkin’s script knows this, and spools it all out in what feels like an obvious way, complete with more than a few predictable and even trite lines of dialogue. If you’d heard nothing about this film prior to turning it on, and you start to feel bored with how it was going after the first, say, 20 minutes, you might even switch it off, convinced that you knew exactly where this was headed.

But you’d be wrong.

Yes, there are plot developments that undercut the more predictable aspects of this story, and they rear their heads later in the movie, but what makes Cutting Class really work is how much Pallenberg and his cast revel in the over-the-top nature of what they’re doing. Because the script approaches things, at first, from a very predictable place, the cast is free to play with those conventions, to push them to more melodramatic heights and have fun with it.

Then, the script does something especially interesting: The film’s adult characters, who begin as straight-laced arbiters of good behavior, morph into something more. They become, before our eyes, monsters in their own particular ways, from perverted principles who ogle teen girls to sadistic disciplinarians and even flat-out brutal gym teachers. The world becomes hostile to the teens at the core of the story, and that only dials up the sense that we’re watching something heightened, something operating on a level that’s not meant to be realistic, but a little more comically mythic. 

Once that sensibility is in place, the kill scenes get nastier, funnier, and more memorable. The film starts to develop into its own peculiar flavor of slasher, a film that’s half-cartoon, and it becomes a ride that was always worth taking because you start to see the zany path that got us from the predictable to the flat-out wild. It makes Cutting Class a hidden slasher gem, and a must-watch for genre completists who’ve already made their way through the usual suspects.

Cutting Class is now streaming on Peacock.


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