Synapse Films releases the terrifyingly prophetic look at the high school ecosystem on Blu-ray
Massacre at Central High is an interesting proto-Heathers that was rediscovered and re-evaluated shortly after its initial release. The film originally hit theaters in 1976 and was basically ignored by critics and regulated to the midnight circuit, where it was rediscovered in 1980 by New York Times critic Vincent Canby. After Canby reviewed it, it set off a chain reaction of other critics reviewing it, mostly for the first time. The film had a Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder giving his take on the microcosm of the American high school, only to deliver a scathingly, still relevant take on how far kids can be pushed in that ecosystem. The film hit Blu-ray recently thanks to Synapse Films, in a special edition that looks to properly contextualize the film that feels terrifyingly prophetic today.
Massacre at Central High starts off, as many stories like this often do, with the arrival of the handsome and broody exchange student — David (Derrel Maury). The school is ruled by a gang of jocks who have turned it into their own private country club, literally bullying anyone who gets in their way. It’s David’s arrival and his friendship with Mark, one of the ruling class, that fractures the once airtight group who see the new student’s anti-authoritarian attitude as a threat to their reign. When they try to get him in line — by dropping a car on his legs(!?!), permanently crippling him — David then starts taking out the bullies one by one in a series of ‘accidents.’ An interesting twist happens in the third act as David’s plan to turn the school into a bully-less utopia is turned on its head when the then-bullied attempt to take advantage of the newly created power vacuum and begin turning on one another trying to take over the school.
Having never seen Massacre before, it’s slightly uncomfortable how much of the film was cribbed for Heathers. While much more bleak than its comedic carbon copy, the film has a few glimpses of that pitch black humor that made Heathers what it was. The performances, however, are what sell the premise here with everyone playing it straight, which is interesting considering how outlandish some of this might have been back in the day. While Derrel Maury is the clear standout here, I was lured into his film by Rainbeaux Smith, of softcore musical Cinderella fame, who plays a bullied teen that later is one of those that try to occupy the vacancy of the Mark’s clique. This film’s lack of budget only helps its street cred and post-apocalyptic feel as the American educational dystopia we live in today is fully realized.
The disc is presented with a wealth of extras, along with a brand new transfer by Synapse Films. The transfer is a bit on the brighter side, but that was probably a style choice from the time to go with an almost pseudo-documentary vibe. The film very much feels like an ABC After School Special on acid aesthetic that goes very much off the rails in its third act, which Heathers just stole outright.
The extras here are a fascinating watch that really attempt to contextualize the film to show how it predicted the strange world we live in today. I think the critical response here was an interesting thread as well, since the film was re-evaluated shortly after it was released, which started a cascade effect to review the film, thus bringing it into the general consciousness.
With our country’s current troubled relationship with school shootings, Massacre at Central High is weirdly prophetic and super relevant, given we live in a world where this is the norm rather than the exception. How Rene Daalder was able to come to that conclusion almost four decades ago is simply terrifying in its forethought. Also one thing Massacre is surprisingly careful not to do is glorify Mark’s actions or even try to rationalize them; it’s a fine thread that Daalder is never unaware of where we should be as an audience, and that speaks volumes. Massacre at Central High is morosely fascinating as not only a grim prediction, but a precursor to the iconic 80s classic that unabashedly ripped this film off.