A chilling look at a college graduating class of the future—well, of the future as of 1971. The excellent Rod Serling written Night Gallery tale “Class of ‘99” is reviewed here.
“Class of ‘99” ***1/2
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Vincent Price as the Professor
Brandon De Wilde as Mr. Johnson
Randolph Mantooth as Mr. Elkins
Frank Hotchkiss as Mr. Clinton
Hilly Hicks as Mr. Barnes
Suzanne Cohane as Miss Fields
Barbara Shannon as Miss Peterson
Richard Doyle as Mr. Bruce
Hunter von Leer as Mr. Templeton
John Davey as Mr. McWhirter
Lenore Kasdorf as Miss Wheeton
John Rayner as the Professor’s Assistant
“Class of ‘99” begins in very creepy fashion. In silence, students file in to a futuristic-looking, stark, white-on-white college lecture hall. Their professor (Vincent Price) begins lecturing and one is really not sure what is going on; it’s an unsettling scene, but it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is unsettling. Then, he begins giving an oral final exam.
He randomly calls on students and asks one young man (Johnson) a question where he must name four people for the correct answer. He can only name three and the professor is shockingly harsh in his dismissal of this “failure” which “proves (the student) incompetent.” The student protests that getting three of four names was pretty good then backs down to his professor’s harangue.
Shortly after, the professor moves “to the behavioral sciences” which is “most important.” First, he sets up a race-based conflict between two students, one white (Clinton), one black (Barnes). He presents a hypothetical situation in which the two were up for the same position and asks the white student to assess his candidacy versus the black man’s candidacy. After some pointed questions, he goads the white student into saying “being black, he might be inferior.”
The professor presses him for an emotional response and Clinton says he’d probably slap him. The professor then orders him to do so and he slaps Barnes in the face. It’s a rather shocking moment.
Then the professor turns to Barnes and asks him to describe Clinton. “Bigoted, aggressive, preset prejudices, illogical attitudes,” is how he summarizes his adversary. Similarly the professor goads Barnes into an emotional response and he slaps Clinton back. Asked for a reaction to what they’ve just done, they both reply to the professor “satisfaction.” This all plays out in a highly tension-filled atmosphere. Jeannot Szwarc, in his third of nineteen Night Gallery stories he would ultimately direct, does a masterful job keeping a long one-set scene as riveting as it could be, and he of course owes a lot to Serling’s button-pushing script.
Next, the professor calls on a female student (Miss Peterson) and asks her for someone she responds to in a negative way. She identifies a student (Miss Fields) whom she identifies as a rich snob (Miss Peterson is from a poor upbringing). Miss Peterson yanks off a necklace Miss Fields is wearing and throws it to the ground. Miss Fields responds by calling Miss Peterson “white trash” and other similar epithets and spits in her face in another shocking confrontation.
Next up in the exam is another white student (Elkins). The professor says “society is made up of your own kind. Pick out an enemy.” He picks an Asian student, Chang. When the professor asks him what kind of relationship he might have with this enemy, Elkins replies “none.” Moving forward with his brand of in-your-face logic, the professor asks how he might deal with this enemy, Elkins replies, “I would have to kill him.”
The professor produces a gun. Armed, Elkins stalks Chang but ultimately cannot shoot him and instead fires his at a classroom light. Furious, the professor demands, “why did you fail to kill the enemy?” “I’m not sure,” Elkins falters, conflicted. “He’s not the enemy. I can’t do that.” When other students seem to murmur their concurrence, the professor says, “he’s infecting the others. Deactivate all of them.” And we then get the big surprise of the segment as all the students freeze.
“Unusual to find such total resistance,” the professor remarks to his assistants. He then asks for “selective control” and if we have not yet realized, we now come to understand that this class is a roomful of robots.
He asks the first student he called upon, Johnson, to assume Elkins’ role. Johnson says Elkins is a “traitor, subversive, an unreliable” and he takes the gun and shoots Elkins. We pan down to Elkins’ robot face sparking. The professor says Johnson gets an “A.”
After this incredible series of events, we now move to another scene where Johnson is giving the commencement address. He says they have been created by man to repopulate society and comments that “many of the ancient virtues are inferior” and that “we shall be men.”
This coda comes off a little bit flat but overall, this is a terrific segment, with Serling having an axe to grind regarding race- and class-based prejudice. It’s heavy-handed to a degree, but it works very well.