Didn’t you just hate high school? Even if you didn’t despise it as much as, say, Carrie White in Carrie or Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean in Heathers, you probably have some traumatic memories of atomic wedgies dispensed by bullies in the locker room or withering judgments hissed at you by the mean girls in the cafeteria. (Then again, maybe it’s just future movie critics who suffered all this.) Hollywood has mined this rich trove of adolescent agita countless times and left us with plenty of depictions of high schools from hell. Here are the ones that still make us quiver.
North Manual High School
Positively quaint by today’s standards of high school carnage, this 1955 movie was a stunner in its time, documenting a national post-war obsession with juvenile delinquency, symbolized here, as always, by black leather jackets and switchblades. Watch for the battle of wills between teacher Glenn Ford and a young and compelling Sidney Poitier. Also note that by including ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in its soundtrack, the film is sometimes credited with helping give birth to rock and roll.
Shermer High School
The Breakfast Club
What kind of lousy high school schedules its detentions for Saturday morning? Enough said. (Nice library, though.)
Carlmont High School
Ex-Marine Michelle Pfeiffer(!) has to control a classroom full of angry students bused in from the ‘hood, most against their wishes. Can a lesson in Bob Dylan lyrics inspire them to quit killing each other and write poetry instead? Maybe it can. You almost expect to find Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver) and Morgan Freeman (Lean on Me) right down the hall.
Watt High School
Watt High is Gus Van Sant’s beautifully spooky vision of what Columbine must have been like for the misfit boys who shot it up. The camera glides silently along endless corridors and sometimes doubles back on itself showing us the same thing twice from different perspectives. It’s disorienting, haunting, and scary… just like high school.
When Kyeong-su transfers to this unusual Korean high school, he doesn’t know he’ll have to kick, punch, flip, and dive his way from one class to the next. (The freaks and geeks don’t have a prayer here.) He turns out to be a top fighter in a school with many of them, and before long, it’s an all-out everyone-against-everyone else flying-martial-arts free-for-all to determine who’ll be the school’s next supernaturally gifted kingpin. And they do it all in stylish black uniforms, their spiky hair gelled to pointy perfection.
Calvin Coolidge High School
Up the Down Staircase
More an indictment of educational bureaucracy than juvenile delinquency, this period piece from 1967 is actually an insightful depiction of the decline of inner-city educational systems in the wake of middle-class suburban flight. Staffers faced with inattentive kids, crippling budget cuts, and crumbling buildings find comfort in meaningless forms, rules, and punishments. As for actual teaching, it’s deprioritized.
Westerberg High School
This deliciously nasty film introduces us to the original Mean Girls, a trio of arch bitches who run their school like their own personal fiefdom, firing off commands and insults in their ugly private argot. Then, after lunch, they stick their fingers down each other’s throats in the girls’ bathroom and plan their next assault on Martha ‘Dumptruck.’ Charming. It may take Christian Slater and some dynamite to get this place back on track.
Ewen High School
Can’t a girl just take a shower after gym class without being harassed? Apparently not at this crummy school (more mean girls!), where poor Carrie White just wants to be left alone to try to cope with her burgeoning post-menstrual telekinetic insanity. When push comes to shove, Carrie has no choice but to shove back, hard. Bullies everywhere, beware.
This L.A. dump of a school collects the student trash from all around the city and warehouses them. It’s up to new principal Jim Belushi, who takes the job only to avoid jail time, to whip the cholos, drug dealers, and gang bangers into shape. His baseball bat comes in very handy, as does his motorcycle, which he ends up riding through the hallways in search of thugs and goons.
Unnamed High School
Class of 1984
Welcome to the hallways of a school where murder, rape, arson, and vandalism are all squeezed in before third-period assembly. The leather-clad hoodlums who run the place set their sights on the new teacher and also find time to shiv Michael J. Fox and drive Roddy McDowall so crazy that he ends up teaching his class with a loaded pistol in his hand. That’s a pop quiz with some real potential pop, and, as I’ve said before, it’s one of my favorite moments in cinema history.
Unnamed High School
The Substitute 2: School’s Out
You know the rule: What’s bad in the original only gets worse in the sequel. Undercover teacher Treat Williams is looking for his brother’s killer, and his search leads to a classroom full of Brooklyn kids so depraved that they’re isolated in a fenced-off and forgotten corner of the school. Amazingly, Williams is able to subdue them by demonstrating his lethal yo-yo skills. Meanwhile, down in auto shop, the homicidal B.D. Wong (of all people!) is running an illegal chop shop and using students as his enforcers. Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.