It’s strange to think that Robert Mandel’s The Substitute turned 25 this year. It feels like I was re-shelving it in the ‘new releases’ section of the video store I worked in not all that long ago. But as the expression goes: Time flies. And with the passing of time, my appreciation for The Substitute has only grown. In the years since its release, I’ve come to regard it as something of a ‘90s exploitation classic.
When Jonathan Shale’s school teacher partner is violently attacked following a disagreement with a student, he knows there is only one thing to do: procure phony teaching credentials, land a job as a substitute in her classroom, get to the bottom of the attack, and make the perpetrators pay…with their lives!
Before I get into why I regard The Substitute as a ‘90s exploitation classic, I want to take a moment to break down what constitutes exploitation cinema. I’ve seen a variety of takes regarding what qualifies and what the term includes. Exploitation films were known to play on current themes or trends in filmmaking, as well as real life. Said films usually did so on a modest budget. Exploitation flicks often featured hammy performances and served up copious amounts of nudity and violence. In their heyday, these pictures were usually played as part of a double bill.
The Substitute fits under the exploitation umbrella as it appears to have been shot on a modest budget. It also exploits fears of school violence in an era where metal detectors in high-crime districts were becoming a reality.
In addition to playing on real-world fears about school violence, The Substitute also apes many of the elements that proved successful in the wildly popular Dangerous Minds, which was released the year prior. Where this film sets itself apart from Dangerous Minds is with its approach to discipline. To the best of my recollection, Michelle Pfeifer never threw any students out a second-story window. But maybe she should have. Who’s to say?
The Substitute is far from lacking in hammy performances, which furthers the film’s exploitation credit. William Forsythe’s is particularly delicious as the character actor chews the scenery to pieces every time he’s onscreen, playing up his outrage to comical proportions. And I think that works to invoke some nostalgia for the overacting antagonists often seen in ‘70s and ‘80s grindhouse filmmaking.
Before I go any further, it is of paramount importance that I touch on Tom Berenger and his impact on the film. Berenger really makes this flick for me. He elevates The Substitute by making Shale likable and giving him humanity. He’s more than a macho hothead with an axe to grind. We actually want to like and eventually invest in Shale. Some of that can be attributed to the way Shale was conceived by screenwriters Roy Frumkes, Rocco Simonelli, and Alan Ormsby. But Berenger’s role in the success of the film shouldn’t be understated.
Even with a top-notch performance from Berenger, it’s hard not to notice that The Substitute is very much a product of its time. From the soundtrack to the wardrobe to the car phones, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a product of the ’90s. I take that in stride and appreciate it as part of the flick’s charm. But if you’re watching The Substitute for the first time, it may be helpful to keep that in mind.
With all that said, The Substitute is, at its core, entertaining. It is more than a little bit enjoyable to see Tom Berenger infiltrate a high school, invest in the students that want to learn, and beat the s**t out of those that don’t.
Speaking of beating the s**t out of students, the third act is really satisfying. Seeing the disruptive, rowdy, drug-dealing gang members get their comeuppance serves as a fitting and enjoyable conclusion. Also, Shale’s showdown with the ringleader is well-staged and entertaining. But what can I say? I’m a sucker for gratuitous onscreen gunplay, strategically placed one-liners, and happy endings. [Insert ‘shrug’ emoji here]
In short, The Substitute may be flawed and silly at times. But it’s entertaining and endearing. I’m still a fan of it after all these years and firmly believe it deserves recognition for bringing grindhouse flavor to ‘90s movie theaters.