[note: This review is part of a "White Elephant" blogathon coordinated by Philip Tatler of the Diary of a Country Pickpocket blog, in which bloggers/critics are assigned by another participant an oddball film (cult, curio, bad but interesting, etc.) to write about. Check out links to all the White Elephant pieces here.]
The New Kids is one of those '80s relics that you want to dismiss and laugh off but can't quite shake off either.
With script and story by Stephen Gyllenhaal--Jake and Maggie's dad, but also a lengthy, solid career as a TV director (Homicide, Felicity, Numb3rs)--and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, most renowned for launching a successful little horror franchise known as Friday the 13th, The New Kids is very much of the era, and flawed as well as discomfiting enough where you can see why it failed in 1985. But both the casting and an effective exploitation plot that gets your blood pumping make it a worthy cult film.
It stars a young and sweetly appealing Lori Loughlin, who'd later become most famous for co-starring (as John Stamos' wife) on the hugely popular (and hugely insipid) long-running ABC sitcom Full House, and many other TV roles over the years--certainly nothing as dark as this. Her brother in the film was played by Shannon Presby, who would only act for a short time in the '80s (including a "very special" 2-part episode of Diff'rent Strokes that oddly foreshadowed this film in its plot about school bullies.)
As the film start, these high school student siblings are roused by their father, an army colonel (played by '80s horror and action staple Tom Atkins), for just your basic bit of family basic training. The dad seems to have almost too much affection for his daughter, as he wakes her up with pat to the butt and a comment about her beautiful body, but this doesn't seem to be meant as creepy. They seem it have a genuine love for each other before a melodramatic plot twist changes everything. The siblings' behavior after a tragedy doesn't seem to reflect the reality of the situation and the tone in these early scenes is odd. However, it all becomes oddly compelling as they go to live with their uncle and aunt who live on a run down amusement park (part santas village, part ramshackle carnival) in a small Florida town, and have to start over in a new school.
There she meets a friendly new classmate played by Eric Stoltz (already a veteran actor at this point, and in his 20s but still boyish-looking--you can see here why he was first cast in Back to the Future, even if that didn't ultimately work out.) But she also encounters some less friendly "students" (they hardly seem to go to the school at all other than to torment peers): A severely blonde James Spader plays the leader of a pack of one of the most entertaining and memorably sleazy group of cretinous bullies you'll find in any high school movie ever, with several lummoxes, a slow chubby kid, at least one creep, and the picked-on little brother (it's never entirely clear which if any of these kids are related, but they seem inbred even if not with each other). They also seem to be the spawn of the hillbilly redneck rapists from Deliverance.
But while their behavior is often stereotypically rednecky and even cartoonish, there's nothing funny about these cruel, sadistic sociopaths who talk eagerly of raping the new girl and bet each other who can have the "honor" first. Some of these characters even feel like ones we'd later see versions of in Justified, the rural crime family, right down to the younger kid surrounded by bad influences and itching to become an adult hoodlum.
Spader's career started off owning these kinds of roles, the sleazy, snobby friend (Pretty in Pink), the Generic Rebel (Tuff Turf), a smarmy drug dealer (Less than Zero), or here the pretty boy bully who doesn't take rejection well.
Stoltz's presence helps this all from becoming too bleak and irredeemable; the young actor was quite appealing and his character offers sweetness that is sharp contrast to the gang of bullies. One of the recognizable faces in that motley crew is John Philbin as perhaps the most vile of 'em all; the gleefully-demented Philbin, who often felt like he should have chewing tobacky in his maw, appeared in that same year's cult zombie treat Return of the LIving Dead and later in Point Break.
The New Kids is (I'd argue) Cunningham's best directed film, the camera flows smartly but not too overtly and he keeps things moving at a swift clip. A scene in the kids living space (a converted warehouse or barn it) in which an intruder lurks in wait while Loughlin showers is an effective twining of dank, foreboding atmosphere and effective set design (including a large, creepy clown puppet). Cunningham, also famous in the 80s for directing the puerile, sophomoric youthful sex comedy Spring Break, might seem a hacky genre director given his career filmography, but he had an undeniable ability to tell these stories rather effectively, no matter how silly or exploitative they appear on surface. (I remember as a teen both enjoying and rolling my eyes at DeepStar Six, one of 1988s many underwater thrillers, a watchable but dumb entry in that brief-lived subgenre.) Also need to mention the film's DP Steven Poster, who actually went on to have a quirky career (and is still working today); by far his most notable work is on Richard Kelly's fascinating, visionary Donnie Darko. This film won't at all be confused with Darko, but there are hints at the future work here and there.
Certainly there are cliches along the way, including the requisite Creepy Shower Scene featuring a disturbing, if predictable, moment that perhaps inspired the later film Fatal Attraction in one respect. But it's a satisfying brew ultimately. And even as this is a film-film that makes little pretense at capturing reality, seems like this Florida high school could use a bit more security, or faculty paying attention to, I don't know, gangs of students beating up on each other on campus. But with a brief exception the school seems to have the same teaching staff as Charlie Brown.
The band of cracker villains here are irredeemably evil, there are very few glimpses of anything more going on inside their heads other than frothing primal rage and lust, sort of like their abused pit bull they wind up to a bloodthirst.
But the narrative carries us along not unlike the home-built rollercoaster While her brother is more of a bland hero, Lori Loughlin comes off pretty well in this, sweet but with some edge to her (understandably); the movie doesn't have her totally helpless, depending on the men to save her - she can take care of herself to a degree, though there's a teamwork motif between the two siblings.
And could this film actually be referencing Welles' The Lady from Shanghai in its Hall of Mirrors sequence in the amusement park climax? Purposely derivative or no, I had to admit to enjoying the gumption of it. Meanwhile, the very end of The New Kids seems almost subversive in its way and there's a teasey hint of a sequel that never came.
**½ out of 4, but definitely worth a watch for those who like unearthing '80s exploitation curios.
[The New Kids is available to rent and buy on Amazon, which is about the only legal place to find it at the moment.]