Drive-In Mutants: Summer School (1987)

Every month we discuss some of the best and worst cult films ever made, from the hits, classics, underground, grind house, and utterly obscure, from Full Moon, and Empire, to Cannon and American International, it’s all here, minus the popcorn, and car fumes.

SUMMER SCHOOL
1987
Paramount Pictures
Directed by:
Carl Reiner
Starring: Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Shawnee Smith, Robin Thomas

The Plot is Afoot! Mark Harmon plays “Shoop,” a teacher and part time California surfer has his summer vacation derailed when he’s blackmailed in to teaching summer school. Anxious for tenure, rather than surf in Hawaii, he takes on the class filled with slackers, under privileged individuals, and the eccentric, all the while trying to convince them to study so they can make it in to the next grade and gain some sense of self-confidence. Meanwhile he bonds with a fellow teacher, and tries to get his students to pass before the season is up.

The Damage: As a kid I spent many a day watching movies on television edited for content. I spent most of my time watching WPIX Channel 11 in New York which was then considered “New York’s Number One Movie Station.” Every ad for movies they aired always garnered my attention, save for a select few here and there. A lot of those films became future favorites like “Animal House” and “A Christmas Story.” Like clockwork about every four months the channel would air the television trailer for 1987’s “Summer School”, and every time I avoided it like the plague. It just never seemed all too funny, especially in the light of films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Years later, I’m glad I was able to experience “Summer School,” because while it might not be a masterpiece, it’s a perfectly imperfect eighties comedy. What makes it more interesting is that it’s a pretty good teen comedy directed by Carl Reiner and scored by Danny Elfman. Considering the talents of both gentlemen, “Summer School” seems like an unlikely project that is never really anything more than a movie about a rag tag group of misfits and their teacher.

Mark Harmon is Shoop, a slacker teacher who lives in California and is always inches away from a beach, school has let out, and he hopes to vacation to Hawaii with his sexy girlfriend. When the summer school teacher quits after winning the lottery, Shoop is wrangled by the militant and horrific school vice principal who blackmails him in to teaching summer school so he can garner a recommendation for tenure. Sometimes it’s a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” wannabe, then it becomes an inspirational film about a teacher changing a bunch of slackers, then it’s a romance about a slacker who happens to be a teacher and garners some sense of responsibility.

Other times it’s an icky love triangle between Mark Harmon’s teacher Shoop, Kirstie Alley, and a sixteen year old student named Pam (the fetching Courtney Thorne-Smith) who has a crush on him. She’s a young girl coming from a hard situation at home who begins forming affection for Shoop when he refuses to give up on her as a student. For 1987 it’s a pretty bittersweet sub-plot. “Summer School” introduces a small group of diverse and eccentric summer school students, some of whom are slackers, while others are held back mainly by their home lives. Despite being an occasionally goofy movie, “Summer School” doesn’t really tack on the whole “They’re just lazy” tag on the summer school students.

Shawnee Smith plays a young girl who is on the verge of giving birth to a child and has no choice but to take summer school, while Kelly Jo Minter is a dyslexic girl trying to figure out how to work around her learning disorder. “Summer School” has become something of a cult classic, and for good reason. It has such a sense of eccentricity to it, that it’s tough not to admire what it attempts to pull off with its mix of slapstick comedy and genuine characterization. Like every eighties comedy, there are one or two spicoli stand ins in the form of Dave and Chainsaw, two hardcore horror geeks having a tough time working around their inability to think about anything else.

“Summer School” is one of the very few comedies that openly pays tribute to the horror genre so unabashedly and feature genuine horror movie geeks. Often times the geeks were either computer nerds, or overweight lumps, but Dave and Chainsaw take their love for horror to where they begin to steal the show. This was a time before loving horror wasn’t chic or sexy, so it’s fun to see side characters Dave and Chainsaw embrace their fanaticism right through to the goofy and twisted finale. Reiner also assembles a decent myriad horror players like Shawnee Smith as an underage pregnant student, Fabiana Udenio as a sexy foreign exchange student, and Kelly Jo Minter.

The cast all turn in solid performances, including star Harmon who is admittedly outshined by his young supporting cast, but is entertaining as the slacker summer school teacher. “Summer School” is tonally uneven, but a silly and charming eighties oddity that entertains and will garner some solid laughs for fans that like this kind of formulaic comedy and teen cast.

Blood: There is a graphic finale that, while a prank, does focus on characters Dave and Chainsaw’s obsession with horror movies. It’s a fun and well staged scene that will keep horror geeks smiling from ear to ear.

Boobs: There’s a ton of suggestive sexuality but zero nudity. Fabiana Udenio is allowed to flash her gorgeous curves, and Courtney Thorne-Smith is very attractive in her role, if it’s any consolation.

Beast: There really is no beast, but you can at least point out all the references to horror movies by Dave and Chainsaw, and take a shot every time they mention “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or any of its characters.

The Rundown: “Summer School” is such a weird kind of eighties movie about slackers and under achievers. While it sags in small points, it’s an interesting kind of comedy with a surprisingly good cast of cast horror vets, and one of the first comedies ever to make the geeks horror movie geeks. Before Wes Craven gave us Randy in “Scream,” Carl Reiner gave us Dave and Chainsaw. For that alone, “Summer School” warrants a viewing or two.

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