Hot for ‘Teacher’
“Crown International Pictures is a significant casualty of the selective traditions of film historiography and the emphasis that is placed on the distinctions, rather than the connections, between American independent cinema, in its many guises, and the shifting contours of ‘mainstream’ Hollywood and its output. Although [American International Pictures] and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures usually are provided as exemplars of 1970s exploitation, Crown International was an equally visible presence in independent production and distribution by virtue of being, for a while at least, America’s youth-market leader; and, whereas much has been said of the influence of the period’s independently released bikerpics and car-crash movies, it was in fact Crown’s long-forgotten date-movies, particularly The Pom Pom Girls (1976), that left an indelible mark on movie-making, industrially and aesthetically. The box-office achievements of Crown’s upbeat teenpics led Hollywood belatedly to embrace films made exclusively for young people and adopt the marketing-friendly approach to filmmaking known simply as ‘high-concept’. For better or worse, without Crown, there would likely have been no Grease (1978) or Porky’s (1981), and films like Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986) would probably have looked very different indeed.”
We could debate that last sentence — Grease came from Broadway, Porkys evolved out of Universal’s American Graffiti, and Flashdance owes more to New World’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School than anything else — but there’s no denying the presence of Crown from the late 60s until the early 80s, when home video snuffed out most of the second-run theatres playing their wares. The Teacher arrived a year after New World’s The Student Teachers (“They can teach you a lot…enter their course!”), but we shouldn’t overlook Summer of ‘42, a hugely successful Warners hit (made for $1 million, it grossed $25 million in the States alone) which sent low budget entrepreneurs looking into quasi-Oedipal scenarios with slow-witted pubescent guys popping their cherries to hot older women. (I’d add The Graduate to the fray, but Benjamin Braddock was in his twenties and should’ve known better.)
In The Teacher, twenty-three-year-old Mr. North — gangly, awkward, topped by a unruly mane of oversize cowlicks — plays seventeen-year-old Sean Roberts, whose hot mom (former Miss Universe — and wife of the director — Marlene Schmidt) struts her bikinied bod around the house and harbors a barely concealed interest in boinking her own son. Taking the high ground, she presses him to date their neighbor, thirty-something high school teacher Diane Marshall (Ms. Tompkins), who’s all into topless sunbathing and getting it on with Sean. Unfortunately for her, and tortuous for us, the boy’s got the IQ of a grape, leaving Mrs. Marshall (her husband’s off ‘somewhere’) begging him for some action. To widen the breadth of these shenanigans, Avedis’s script incorporates a feverish subplot concerning the accidental death of Sean’s friend, Joe (Med Florey), and the retaliation of Joe’s village idiot brother, Ralph. For the latter, they cast Anthony James, all wide-eyed and over-the-top, whose chipped beef cranium is centered by a facial hybrid of Henry Silva and Vladek Sheybal, with enough pockmarks to make Robert Davi wince. (So impressed by his look and deportment, Avedis used him again in two other pictures.) When not cruising the bucolic suburban streets in his hearse (a dose of sledgehammer symbolism), Ralph hurls a stream of empty threats at Sean (he has the opportunity to kill him several times but doesn’t), leading to an unexpectedly gloomy conclusion wherein The Teacher falls back on two of the decade’s prominent clichés, a downbeat denouement and freeze-frame fade-out.
It takes a seasoned craftsman to string all of this heated nonsense together, and, despite the absurd situations and thespic limitations of some of the actors, Hikmet Avedis appears genuinely invested in every scene. Made a few short years before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas exiled popular American film to a state of calculated irony, The Teacher is played ‘straight’ — which, ironically, makes it seem all the more ironic. He piles on the nudity wherever applicable (and Angel looks splendid in the buff) while simultaneously correlating sex with death, opening the picture for psychological analysis to anyone willing to read into these Ken & Barbie personas and their myopic universe. Which, incidentally, is a location shoot in a pre-1990 blue collar suburbia yet to be overhauled by McMansions, big-box stores and fast food chains, looking virtually pastoral in its post-WWII simplicity.
The Teacher is quintessential 70s teen sexploitation, but also serves as a model of Avedis’s adherence to the old school approach to form and content. While the majority of genre product then being distributed by Crown, New World, AIP and Cannon Films was hackneyed and insubstantial, Avedis made an effort to shape his screenplays with small, colorful plot digressions and secondary characters, suggesting a talent that could have flourished a decade or so earlier in the kind of tight, meaty pictures once made by Don Siegel and Hugo Fregonese. Instead, he anglicized his first name to Howard, toiled in the campy schlock of Edy Williams as Dr. Minx and Connie Stevens as Scorchy, and reworked the basic theme of The Teacher into the noirish They’re Playing with Fire, which is notable for showcasing Sybil Danning’s spectacular physique in its prime. After making just eleven films together, Avedis and Ms. Schmidt ended their fifteen-year career in 1987 with Kidnapped, about young girls shanghaied into the porn industry… making us wonder if that’s where the filmmaker ended up as well.