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Cram Sheet: Dark high school movies

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By Deborah Netburn, Jevon Phillips and Patrick Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

An overview:

• The dark high school comedy usually involves one of three main themes: 1. Sex. 2. Murder. 3. The outsider/severe, painful, social awkwardness.

• One might argue that the dark high school comedy makes perhaps the best use of the black comedy genre because the subject matter and the medium are so perfectly paired; For most of us, high school is both painful and embarrassing, while at the same time being hilarious in retrospect. A perfect recipe for darkly comic storytelling.

Continue reading for examples of some of the best of the genre. (amazon.com)
Welcome to the Dollhouse
‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’

SparkNotes version: Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) is the most awkward seventh grader EVER — and to make matters worse she’s not even smart (like her older brother) or sweet (like her adorable younger sister). She gets a secret boyfriend, but is really in love with a long-haired high school student named Steve.

If this were a class it would be: Special Ed — all the kids in this movie seem to need a little extra help.

Essay question: Choose one of the following quotes from the film and describe how it applies to your life: (1) “Oh Steve, they’re all so beautiful.” (2) “Just because Ralphie’s an [expletive] doesn’t mean he’s an [other expletive].” (3) Q: “Why do you hate me?” A: “Because you’re ugly.”

Final grade: A-. There’s not much of a plot to this movie, but that’s not the point. What you can’t believe when you are watching is how totally and completely Matarazzo nails her part. Awkwardness abounds. (Sony Pictures)
Teaching Mrs. Tingle
‘Teaching Mrs. Tingle’

SparkNotes version: Students fed up with abuse at the hands of a teacher (Helen Mirren) confront her, but wind up making her a captive in her own home.

If this were a class it would be: Drama -- where an impressively overqualified instructor (Mirren) attempts to show fresh faces how to act, but it’s best to forget the whole thing happened. One classmate always goes on to something better -- in this case, Katie Holmes.

Essay question: How much did this film factor into Tom Cruise’s future marriage plans? Did it help or hurt them?

Final grade: For failing with critics and audiences, this total misfire gets an unqualified F. (Bruce Birmelin / Dimension Films)
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For the record: An earlier version of the essay question on this slide said that Heather Duke wore the red bow before Heather Chandler. As any real scholar of “Heathers” knows, it was Heather Chandler who wore the red bow first. The writer apologizes profusely for this mistake.

‘Heathers’

SparkNotes version: With the help of her new-to-town deranged boyfriend (Christian Slater) a popular girl (Winona Ryder) accidentally begins to kill off kids in her high school.

If this were a class it would be: Classics — because you can’t consider yourself a high school film scholar without being well acquainted with this ‘80s classic.

Essay question: Discuss the significance of the red bow worn first by Heather Chandler, and then by Heather Duke. Compare and contrast the bow with other symbols of power found throughout history.

Final grade: A+ This is the definitive dark high school comedy movie. Nothing else even comes close. (New World Pictures)
‘Donnie Darko’
‘Donnie Darko’

SparkNotes version: Visions of a 6-foot-tall rabbit named Frank cause a troubled teen to narrowly miss dying when an airplane engine crashes into his bedroom, but Frank also warns the boy that the world will end in 28 days.

If this were a class it would be: Physics -- filled with fascinating concepts that make you feel smart while contemplating them, but good luck trying to make sense of it to your friends later.

Essay question: Compare and contrast confusing good, as demonstrated in “Donnie Darko” with confusing bad, as seen in Richard Kelly’s follow-up “Southland Tales.”

Final grade: Although its box-office performance fell far short of blockbuster status, the movie achieved a true second life on DVD. Unfortunately, director Richard Kelly noodled around with the film and released a director’s cut in 2005 that explained the story much more explicitly but removed some of the original version’s mysterious charm. For that, we are forced to dock the film by a half-merit: A-. (Dale Robinette / New Market Films)
Nightmare on Elm Street
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

SparkNotes version: The original centered around a group of high school students (Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp and more) who were the sons and daughters of a mob that murdered a child molester (Robert Englund) who now haunts dreams.

If this were a class it would be: Health. Kids are dropping dead everywhere due to sleep deprivation and bad dreams (according to the doctors), though there’s the little matter of a guy (Freddy Krueger) killing them in their sleep.

Essay question: Can sleep deprivation not only affect an individual’s physical and mental state, but effectively alter their perception of reality?

Final grade: B+. Despite the murders/suicides/accidental deaths, no one could really tell if it was group paranoia or a supernatural entity with shaving razors attached to a leather glove. (James Dittiger / New Line Cinema)
‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High’
‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High’

SparkNotes version: Toxic waste turns normal high school kids into crazed psychos and mutant-spawning nymphos.

If this were a class it would be: Study hall -- the place you go to waste time, take a nap, see all the school losers and possibly witness something really disgusting.

Essay question: Discuss the positive and negative effects of toxic waste on student life. Compare and contrast with your own high school experience.

Final grade: A movie like “Nuke ‘Em High” defies the normal grading curve. It’s trashy and gross, but it’s trashy and gross on purpose. As a viewer, you’re into it or you’re not. With that in mind, we judge this movie on a pass-fail basis and we say it passes. (Troma)
Election
‘Election’

SparkNotes version: An overachieving high school student (Reese Witherspoon) will stop at nothing to become the school’s class president, and a teacher (Matthew Broderick) will stop at nothing to make sure that she doesn’t.

If this were a class it would be: Government. See how the political machine (of high school class elections) works!

Essay question: When so much emphasis is put on a candidate’s personal life, is an election where tactics are often called into question the best method when selecting who best to govern?

Final grade: A. It was shown that most individuals fight to keep their private lives private but, eventually, having a public persona will reveal intimate details and may even enact positive, or negative, change. (Bob Akester / Paramount Pictures)
Saved!
‘Saved!’

SparkNotes version: A Christian teenager must contend with the religious convictions of her teachers and classmates when she becomes pregnant with her gay boyfriend’s child.

If this were a class it would be: Sex Ed --forget religion, this movie doesn’t revel in the kind of theology any upstanding Christian would want to be associated with. Instead, we learn a little bit about all the issues raised by teen pregnancy.

Essay question: Make an argument for and against the behavior of Jena Malone’s character in the film. Be sure to cite biblical passages to back up your claims.

Final grade: Not as dark as the rest of the movies on this list, despite plenty of material to deal with, so it rates a solid B. (Diyah Pera / United Artists)
Scream
‘Scream’

SparkNotes version: A group of high school friends are murdered one by one by a “ghostface” killer who uses all of the cliché horror stereotypes (that happen to be pointed out in the film). Young stars include Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Drew Barrymore, David Arquette and Courteney Cox.

If this were a class it would be: Film appreciation. The rules to horror include: (1) You may not survive the movie if you have sex. (2) You may not survive the movie if you drink or do drugs. (3) You may not survive the movie if you say “I’ll be right back.”

Essay question: By breaking stereotypes and formulaic thinking, does a film itself become a formula?

Final grade: A-. Multiple sequels and knockoffs (“I Know What You Did Last Summer,” etc.) came to the forefront, and the genre continues to be a strong draw at the box office. (David M. Moir / Miramax)
Better Off Dead
‘Better Off Dead’

SparkNotes version: John Cusack plays Lane, a teenager who gets dumped by his girlfriend Beth and turns suicidal. While navigating his crazy family, a diabolical newsboy, a ski-off and his constant death attempts, he neglects to notice Monique, the exchange student across the street, who just might be the perfect girl for him.

If this were a class it would be: P.E. -- the main character is a skier.

Essay question: Chart the development and progress of Lane and Monique’s relationship throughout the film. At what point does she develop feelings for him, and him for her? Why is she better suited to Lane than Beth?

Final grade: A. (And we came very close to putting a plus on there). This movie may not be THE definitive dark high school comedy, but it gets a lot of points for originality. “I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS!” ()
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