When I wrote up Summer Rental for this very site five years ago, I noted that I felt nostalgic watching it even though I hadn’t seen it until almost 30 years after its release. The most likely explanation was Summer School — Carl Reiner’s next film, which also follows the ever-lucrative “Summer [Something]” title format and was on regular VHS rotation in my home growing up.
The ‘80s was a golden time for high-school movies, but like a lot of families, our movie-watching habits were largely dependent on the TV schedules — an opportunistic bit of video-recorder programming might result in a now-barely-remembered movie becoming one we saw 20 times. Summer School isn’t a total obscurity by any means, but in a decade that produced The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s definitely in a much lower tier. But somehow, I don’t think I saw any of those until I grew up and left home — for me and my sisters, American high school was Summer School. And Saved by the Bell obviously, but that’s another story for another time.
The film starts on the last day of the year, as a California school’s students prepare for several weeks of precious freedom. Amid scenes of youthful celebration, the vice principal and one of those school-cops that are apparently absolutely normal out there hand out slips to certain students to inform them that they’ve failed Remedial English and will be required to report to Summer School. But there’s a problem — the teacher tasked with running the summer class has just won the lottery and quit. Enter Freddie Shoop (Mark Harmon), a slacker gym teacher who does not have tenure (a concept that I, as a British person, am fundamentally unable to understand, but it seems important) and hence can be blackmailed into taking the assignment — at the expense of his planned Hawaiian holiday, which his girlfriend promptly decides to take without him.
Shoop is the kind of teacher that kids like but don’t respect — there’s no indication that his classes are anything but a free ride. So at first glance, it seems like they’re a perfect match: a bunch of kids who don’t want to learn and a teacher who can’t teach. A series of anarchic field trips later, their extracurricular antics get reported back to the vice principal. Suddenly, Shoop is on the verge of losing his job, and everyone suddenly has to take things a little more seriously. And so, the summer school forges an agreement — Shoop will do a favor for each of the kids if they agree to actually study.
So far, so boilerplate ’80s high school comedy. But Summer School has enough wit, a deep enough cast, and strange enough characters to transcend the clichés. The kids include future scream-queen Shawnee Smith (who was doing fine at school until she got pregnant), sitcom regular Courtney Thorne-Smith (who only cares about surfing), almost 30-year-old Ken Olandt (who has been working as an [allegedly] underage stripper and spends his schooldays asleep) and, best of all, Dean Cameron and Gary Riley as Chainsaw and Dave, two horror obsessives who struggle with sobriety and seemingly share the same brain. Like a lot of the best comedies, you can tell that the filmmakers have a ton of affection for these characters — they may screw up, repeatedly, but they all deserve another shot. And Freddie Shoop eventually realizes this too, although it takes a house fire, a car wreck, and a short spell in jail to get him there.
Summer School isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a feel-good ride with romance (courtesy of Kirstie Alley as Shoop’s fellow summer-school teacher), a great ’80s New Wave soundtrack, a cute dog (who gets his own subplot!) and gore FX by horror legend Rick Baker. You see, Chainsaw and Dave may have low IQs, but when it comes to video-nasty-inspired pranks, they’re top of the class. And when the students inevitably push Shoop too far, their skills prove hugely useful for scaring off any would-be replacement.
Whether this film would hold up to a first viewing, 35 years after release, is up for debate. But through my nostalgic eyes it’s a strong example of the genre that avoids most of its pitfalls — it’s never mean-spirited, and the mixture of wholesome “you can do it!” energy and splatter FX remains weirdly thrilling. It has enough sense not to imply that a mediocre teacher can fix a bunch of wayward kids, too — progress is made, but not nobody’s perfect. But don’t worry, at least the dog gets a happy ending.