Retro Recaps: Amazing Stories – Go to the Head of the Class
Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.
One of my favorite television series that my Dad turned me onto when I was little, is The Twilight Zone. The weekly anthology of different stories with strange twists was also a favorite of many in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg. In fact, when Steven Spielberg found out the story Duel (about a man terrorized by a semi truck) was written by former Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson, he was eager to direct it. Steven even directed a segment for the Twilight Zone film released in 1983, based on the episode, Kick the Can.
In 1985, Spielberg seemed to follow in Rod Serling’s foosteps even further, when he created the anthology series Amazing Stories that ran on the ABC network. Sadly, the show only lasted for 2 seasons, but it was almost like a playground for Spielberg and his cohorts. While the majority of the episodes took up a half-hour of television time, there was one anomaly in the second season: the hour-long episode titled, Go to the Head of the Class.
While I have memories of a few Amazing Stories episodes, this was one I couldn’t recall (maybe it was due to the ‘parental discretion advised’ warning on the episode). Years later, I wanted to see it because it was almost the equivalent of a Back to the Future reunion, featuring the following people:
Robert Zemeckis – Director
Bob Gale – Co-writer for the Teleplay
Alan Silvestri – Music
Christopher Lloyd – as Professor B.O. Beanes
The short also employed Stan Winston Studios to help with some of the props. But, we’ll get to that later on. Let’s recap, shall we?
The episode opens with a clip from 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill. We then transition to later in the morning, as the camera moves around an unkempt room. The camera-work for this set-up is similar to the beginning of Back to the Future, where the camera showed us Doc Brown’s laboratory. In this case, the room is that of Peter Brand (Scott Coffey). As the camera pans around the room, we see that he seems obsessed with two things: a girl whose picture appears all over his room, and horror movies.
The camera then shows us Peter in bed, awoken by his (ghoulish-looking) phone. It’s his Mother, calling to tell him he’s late for school…again! Peter quickly snaps into action.
A minor comedy point follows, as Peter has padlocked the room to his door, and only comes and goes through his bedroom window. We hear his Mom off-camera demanding he do something about this, making her one of those ‘all-talk/do-nothing’ parents.
The next thing we see is the classroom of Professor B.O. Beanes (Christopher Lloyd), with the Professor going full tilt discussing one of his favorite playwrights: William Shakespeare. Clad in a tweed blazer with a black scarf around his neck, Beanes’ voice seems to demand attention, as well as annoyance to be lecturing to ‘creatures’ he deems unable to appreciate the Bard’s work.
It is during this time that Peter attempts to sneak into the class…but is overheard by Beanes. The Professor interrupts his lesson to give Peter a tardy slip, promising that if he gets one more, “I’ll have you right where I want you…in detention.” (3 years later, in 1989, Vice-Principal Strickland would utter the same line to Biff Tannen in Back to the Future Part II).
As Beanes turns back to his lesson, a girl nearby whispers to Peter if he has her homework. This is Cynthia Simpson (Mary Stuart Masterson), of whom Peter has pictured all over his bedroom, though her appearance looks nothing like the presentable young woman in the pictures we saw. In fact, she’s the only person in the class who doesn’t seem to be appropriately attired for school.
Peter quickly passes some papers to Cynthia, as Beanes continues to speak of murder in the Bard’s play, Macbeth, and how Lady Macbeth used the promise and withholding of sex to manipulate those around her. Beanes states that such practices are still happening even to this day, before handing back essays to the class, with the majority of them having been given an ‘F’ grade. It is when he gets to Cynthia that he takes notice, for both hers and Peter’s essay papers were identical! Beanes demands to know who plagiarized the others paper, or else both will be punished. Almost as proof that Beanes is right about women controlling men, Cynthia doesn’t bat an eyelash, and Peter says he copied her paper.
The expression on Beanes’ face seems to show that he believes it is Cynthia who is the guilty party, but he hands back her essay, claiming it’s ‘C+’ was the highest grade in the class.
For punishment, Peter is forced to ‘Meet the Misters.’ This involves him kneeling on the floor in front of the class, with several heavy tomes stacked in each hand. Beanes promises Peter that if he drops any of the books, ‘he’ll have his head.’ We then see Peter looking utterly humiliated, as the rest of the class chuckles and giggles at his predicament, with Cynthia refusing to make eye-contact with him.
After school, Cynthia meets up with Peter, and the two talk about how they’d like to get back at Beanes. Cynthia claims that a record she got Peter called Blood Sausage, has all sorts of spells and incantations that are revealed when the tracks are played backwards. She tells Peter to play a song called “Teacher’s Threat” backwards, and it’ll reveal a way to get back at Beanes. Before Peter can get a word in, she tells him she’ll come over to his place that evening.
Before Cynthia comes over, Peter rigs his record player to run backwards, and an eerie voice (sounding like an imitation of Vincent Price), begins to list the ingredients for “The Curse of Delcite.”
The curse calls for the following to be combined at the stroke of midnight by ‘the combined hand of woman and man’:
– a graven image
– rose water
– dirt from a freshly-dug grave
– the fingertip of a blood relative
After listening to the ingredients, Peter wonders just what the curse is, when a black, long-fingered claw grabs his face!
Peter quickly breaks free, but hits his head on a nearby overhang, and collapses next to his bed.
However, it turns out the claw was just a monster glove that Cynthia wore to play a trick on him. Looking around his room, she quickly takes most of Peter’s obsessive feelings about her in stride (she also doesn’t question why he has photos of her all over the place…just mentioning that she hates how she looks in them).
Changing the subject, Peter asks just what “The Curse of Delcite” is, and Cynthia tells him that it gives the victim hiccups. She knows this because she used it on her Mom previously, giving her a bad case of hiccups for 3 days. Though the spell calls for specific ingredients, Cynthia tells Peter she substituted a lock of her Grandmother’s hair for the fingertip of a blood relative that is described in the spell.
Peter is still unsure of using the curse on Beanes but Cynthia feels that this would be the perfect revenge on their teacher, as hiccups would leave him unable to properly speak in class.
The two then sneak off to the nearby cemetery to procure ingredients. Cynthia manages to get Peter to jump into an open grave to retrieve some freshly-dug dirt, before they make their way to the Beanes family mausoleum nearby. After breaking open the lock with a sledgehammer, Cynthia prepares a cauldron with the ingredients, but leaves Peter to retrieve a fingertip from the tomb of Ebenezer Beanes nearby.
Peter attempts to cut off a fingertip, just as a clock outside begins to chime 12. Suspense builds as Peter continues to work with the dull pair of scissors, before severing the whole hand of Beanes’ relation.
With no time left, the two toss the hand into the cauldron, causing an otherworldly sound to issue forth, and green fire to shoot up into the air. One assumes that Cynthia didn’t see this happen when she used the curse on her Mom, as she quickly runs away , with Peter close behind.
After the entire ordeal, Cynthia just wants to go home, but Peter wants to be sure that the curse they cast has actually worked. Going to Beanes’ home (shot low-angle like most gothic horror-film houses), the two peek inside one of the windows…
…only to see Beanes’ body collapsed on the floor! Breaking through the nearby door, they find that he is dead. Cynthia tries to convince Peter that this wasn’t their fault, but Peter points to a nearby clock, that seems to have stopped exactly at midnight. Cynthia requests that they just leave the body for the Police to find, but Peter notes that their fingerprints are on the door and the body.
They then realize there is a way to get around this predicament: they need to bring Beanes back to life. Luckily, there’s another song on the Blood Sausage album, that contains steps for resurrection when played backwards.
Peter and Cynthia then attempt to follow the steps, but are forced to make a few changes. When Cynthia asks for a ‘graven image,’ Peter finds a copy of the school’s yearbook nearby, and begins to turn pages until he comes to the one with Beanes on it.
In his haste to tear it out of the yearbook, he ‘severs’ the head of the picture, and rips the page out in two pieces. For ‘water of resurrection,’ Cynthia provides mineral water.
At first, it seems the spell hasn’t worked, when suddenly, all the windows fly open, and lightning illuminates the room. From the bed, Beanes starts to make small guttural sounds in his throat.
As the two watch, his body sits up…but his head (due to Peter’s handling of the yearbook photo), remains on the pillow. But it isn’t silent, and addresses both of them:
“Mister Brand, Miss Simpson, prepare to Meet The Misters!”
It’s interesting to note that unlike the rather grumpy mood that Beanes had in the classroom, his resurrection seems to have made him a little off-kilter.
Peter and Cynthia attempt to get out of the house, but Beanes’ body picks up the severed head, and begins to come after them. It’s interesting to note that this is where Stan Winston Studios takes over, using several different types of severed heads with Lloyd’s likeness for long and medium-shots. Today, we can see which shots are faked, but I can’t help but feel this scene definitely would have freaked out my 6-year-old mind at the time (in fact, I did find a couple people online who were around the same age I was, and these scenes scared them at the time!).
Even though his head is severed, Beanes does not control the movements of his own body, and it seems to have a ‘mind’ of its own. It lobs Beanes’ head around, scaring Peter and Cynthia as they run from room to room.
One of the unexpected moments comes when they barricade the door in the Professor’s kitchen…only to not realize there’s a pet door, and through which Beanes’ severed head comes rolling through, promising that they ‘won’t escape his wrath!’
The two kids eventually make their way outside, and climb over a nearby fence, with Beanes and his body in pursuit. Peter sees a bus approaching, and tries to get the driver’s attention.
The bus doesn’t stop for him, and it is at this moment that Cynthia chooses to abandon Peter, jumping on the rear-bumper of the bus as it speeds off!
With no mode of transportation and Cynthia having deserted him, Peter turns to find Beanes approaching, and pleads for his life, claiming that Cynthia made him do what he did.
“Sex made you do it, Mr Brand,” replies Beanes’ head. “You should have paid attention to Macbeth, instead of Cynthia!”
It should be noted that Beanes breaks up the syllables in Cynthia’s name, so that the first part of her name comes out sounding like ‘sin.’
Peter takes off running down the street, trying to stay as far away from Beanes as possible. As the thunder and lightning pound around him, we also see that the cars on the street are vintage 50’s vehicles, almost as if Peter is in an old horror film.
Peter eventually makes it to his open bedroom window and climbs inside, but not before Beanes’ body catches up to him, and tosses the head through the window (shades of The Headless Horseman from Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Peter catches the head, which sends him pinwheeling across his room, before crumpling against his nightstand. The last thing he hears is the severed head ‘wanting to see him in detention.’
The next morning, Peter wakes up to his phone ringing. It’s his Mom, berating him for being late to school again. However, there’s no sign of the severed head. Was it all just a dream?
Peter makes his way to class, where he comes across several strange sights.
The first is Cynthia, who is wearing more ‘conforming’ clothing, and appears to have ‘Met The Misters’ at the front of the class.
The second is that everyone is writing away at their desks in unison, heads down, and concentrating.
Peter sits down at his desk, when a hand suddenly grabs his shoulder!
Turning around, he sees that it is Beanes, who claims that Peter’s tardiness today has earned him a one-way ticket to detention.
Peter admits that he’s fine with detention, and is just glad that Beanes is okay.
“Well, actually,” says Beanes, “I have a bit of a sore-”
Whipping off his black scarf, Beanes reveals the stitches that have reattached his head to his body, laughing maniacally as Peter stares wide-eyed in horror!
And that was Go to the Head of the Class. It isn’t the greatest hour of television, but it does get merits for its homage to old horror films. Robert Zemeckis’ work has often been about creating certain levels of nostalgia, and also the fact that his screenwriting partner Bob Gale had a hand in the episode, there’s definitely little flourishes of greatness.
One should note that if you’re a fan of Zemeckis and Gale’s work, you can see little traits of their creative partnership come out in this episode. Much like the two added lots of layers into Back to the Future, Head of the Class contains plenty of subtle little things that one might not see the first time through.
Also, I think knowing the outcome of the ending of the episode can spoil things for people. Before I saw this, the one image I had seen associated with the episode was Christopher Lloyd’s severed head smiling maniacally, lying on a tile floor. During the middle of the show, the filmmakers attempt to make you think that Peter passed out, and everything from Cynthia coming over, to him being chased by Beanes’ body and head was all a dream, brought about by the events of the day (everything from Beanes talking about Macbeth to telling Peter he would ‘have his head’ could have all been percolating in his brain, and spewed forth into a nightmare brought upon by his love of horror films). This almost mirrors the scenes in Back to the Future, where we see Marty in bed before Doc Brown calls him, and then later on, with him waking up in his bed at the end, thinking the whole time-travel journey was a ‘nightmare.’
Speaking of horror films, the story/teleplay writer Mick Garris, and additional teleplay co-writer Tom McLoughlin seemed just as suited for this episode, as the guys who wrote the episode Miscalculation. Both Garris and McLoughlin even took ‘stabs’ at Stephen King-related works.
Character-wise, Peter Brand is probably one of the most milquetoast male leads that Zemeckis and Gale have used. He’s almost like Marty McFly (a reactive character), but not even 1/10th as cool. Peter just subsists on a life of pining for Cynthia, and watching horror films, almost making this a slight ‘be careful what you wish for’ teleplay.
Then again, Peter’s character is there to be wrapped around Cynthia’s finger, as she manages to get him to do all sorts of things for her from her homework, to diving into a grave to retrieve freshly-dug dirt). Masterson appears to have the more fun role of the two, being the boss in this relationship. One has to also note there is one fatal flaw in her use of the ‘Curse of Delcite’ on her Mother. The spell calls for it to be cast by ‘the united hand of woman and man,’ so who was the man she cast that spell with?
And then we have Christopher Lloyd, channeling the eccentric and the slightly looney, but also getting into a deep, perturbed area. Lloyd can play annoyed and eccentric pretty well (he played an artist with these traits in two episodes of the TV series Cheers), but he also makes great use of facial expressions. Some funny moments come after Peter and Cynthia find him, and his face is frozen in a look of shock. Lloyd holds this expression even when Peter attempts to drag him up some stairs.
All-in-all, the episode seems like it would have been far more at-home in the HBO anthology series, Tales from the Crypt. Of course, it just so happens that Robert Zemeckis made his way over to that series, serving as Producer and Director in several capacities to that show later on.
Word was that by the second season of Amazing Stories, much of the audience was abandoning ship, and there was a struggle by the network to get people to watch, including ramping up the advertisements for this episode. Back during the VHS days, Head of the Class was released as part of an 2-episode set with the Brad Bird-directed Family Dog episode. Today, one can only find the episode floating around on the internet, or part of sets released by bootleggers.
A few years ago, Universal Studios released the first season of Amazing Stories on DVD, but the second season never materialized on American shores. Word is, that it did show up on Region 2 DVD in Japan (once again proving that Marty McFly’s statement that ‘all the best stuff is made in Japan’ still holds true today!).
Oh, and one more thing. It seems that Steven Spielberg inserted a little in-joke into this episode too. When Peter is flipping through the yearbook in Beanes’ home, he comes across a page showing Principal Sid Sheinberg. The truth is, Sid is a real person. He was not only the President and COO of MCA/Universal Pictures, but was also instrumental in helping Spielberg get his start in movies (in one interview, Sid even claimed that that would most likely end up written on his tombstone some day).