The New Kids
January 18, 1985
Sean S. Cunningham
Shannon Presby as Loren
Lori Loughlin as Abby
James Spader as Dutra
John Philbin as Gideon
Eric Stoltz as Mark
Sean S. Cunningham may have delivered a classic with Friday the 13th, but the magic is missing in his 1985 offering The New Kids.
To be entirely honest, the existence of Sean S. Cunningham’s psycho teen flick, The New Kids was completely unknown to me up until a few years ago. It’s rather easy to forget or remain foreign to many of Cunningham’s works simply because his early slasher Friday the 13thbecame such a massive, iconic hit that tunnel vision (in regards to Sean’s directorial work exclusively) set in for masses. No one is about to forget the Voorhees family, and the name Sean S. Cunningham has become synonymous with the brand (and the hulking hockey mask-wearing killer Jason, despite the fact that technically Sean never directed the menace in grown form). But Sean has put plenty of work in within the realm of horror (directing flicks like A Stranger is Watching andDeepStar Six while producing efforts likeHouse, The Horror Show, The Last House on the Left and numerous other Friday features), andThe New Kids was definitely a noteworthy credit on his résumé. The looming question is was it noteworthy for the right reasons or the wrong? And that’s precisely where things get tricky.
On one hand The New Kids is miserably hokey. On the other, it’s brilliant and terrifying, in moments. The story sees two teens (Loren and his sister Abby) forced to move to a rural region of Florida to live with their aunt and uncle after their parents are killed in an accident. Upon arriving in Florida the two encounter trouble immediately. A ragtag band of misfits runs the local high school, bullying their way to invincibility. They take an immediate liking to the attractive Abby, but when she rejects them, they lose their cool and become overwrought with anger. Naturally, they target Abby for future bullying. But Loren is no punk, and he’s quick to stand up for his sister, and dish out a little aggression on the group, which only manages to trigger outright rage. What follows is a back-and-forth feud between the maniacal group and the two siblings that quickly escalates to fatal violence.
The potential of the picture is immense, but the execution is botched time and again. Both Shannon Presby and Lori Loughlin (who play Loren and Abby, respectively) are great characters who (for the most part) respond as would be expected. They’re both grieving but optimistic teens looking to move on from a devastating tragedy. However, the picture’s antagonists are far more silly than frightening (save for James Spader, who fronts the group as the heartless Dutra), delivering offensively bad lines in unbelievably over-the-top fashion. Never in a million years would anyone fear guys like this, they’re basically class clowns pretending to be tough guys, hiding behind the presence of Dutra. The idea that these losers would resort to murder because the cute new girl at school denied their advances also feels preposterous. It’s not a believable conflict and to make matters worse the bulk of the characters aren’t anywhere near believable either. Worse still is the fact that it’s hard to find a single magnetic quality in any of them. The best villains are villains who command a small measure of sympathy or some lone experience in which the viewer can relate to. As viewers we want to hate the villain, but understand why he’s a villain; what drove him to his malicious ways. We don’t get that from these thugs. They’re violent, hollow shells, not actual personalities.
Those are the primary problems with the picture. But there are some seriously eerie shots in this one, typically accompanied by some very, very creepy score work from composer Lalo Schifrin. These sequences are few and far between, and don’t really surface until the film’s final act, but when you spot one of Cunningham’s trademark shots with James Spader creeping up the frame, you know it. There’s also a measure of savagery in Spader’s character that really, really chills. This kid is willing to brutally murder, and he doesn’t show a hint of remorse in doing so. It’s a little unsettling to watch the kid spiral into a homicidal state of mind and then remember that he’s reached that point over a girl who simply said no.
I think the story, when viewed from a broad spectrum is a bit too similar to The Last House on the Left to leave many oohing and ahing, as it’s really the same idea with some minor tweaks. Innocents are victimized, survive and retaliate, leaving the villain the eventual victim. There’s an obvious difference in the mood of the two films, but the core idea is quite familiar. That doesn’t necessarily make it a terrible movie, and it definitely doesn’t make it a fantastic movie. The New Kids is just one of those many random ‘80s pics that entertains in spots and disappoints in many others. It’s fine for a single watch, but there’s a reason few discuss the production today.