Following the success of pioneering films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, the eighties became so flooded with psycho killers that it is widely referred to as the Golden Age of the Slasher Movie. Movies like The Burning and The Prowler followed the formula closely, mixing violence with the sort of tongue-in-cheek comedy that would define the slasher subgenre. However, by the middle of the decade, darker films like Scream for Help and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had begun to downplay the humor, raising the brutality level in the process. A good example of this type of film is the 1985 killer-on-the-road movie The Boys Next Door.
The Boys Next Door is the story of two young men, Bo Richards (Charlie Sheen from “Two and a Half Men”) and Roy Alston (Maxwell Caulfield, better known as Rex Manning from Empire Records), who have made it through high school without making any friends except for each other. They make an odd pair – Bo is a sensitive, poetry reciting soul who pines after girls who are way out of his league, and Roy is a crazy kid who considers joining the marines to curb his psychotic impulses. After graduation, the boys decide to take one last road trip to Los Angeles before they start their post-high school factory jobs. When they get to L.A., an innocent misunderstanding at a gas station leads to Roy beating the hell out of the attendant. Detective Mark Woods (The Faculty’s Christopher McDonald) and Detective Ed Hanley (Hank Garrett from The Sentinel) interview the victim and get a description of Bo and Roy, but the information doesn’t do them any good; the boys are a step ahead of the police, and Roy has gotten a taste for blood. As Roy commits more heinous crimes, with Bo acting as an unwilling but loyal accomplice, the cops realize that they are dealing with a dangerous pair of lunatics.
For such an unsung film, The Boys Next Door has a pretty solid behind-the-scenes pedigree. It was directed by Penelope Spheeris, who not only made Wayne’s World and Suburbia, but also did the three-part The Decline of Western Civilization rock and roll documentary series. The screenplay was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, the team that was behind several episodes of “The X-Files,” as well as a couple of the Final Destination movies. The combination of the Morgan and Wong script with Spheeris’ realist vision results in a crazy little offbeat buddy movie that mixes John Hughes-esque adolescent drama with some highly disturbing characters that seem to be ripped right out of Terrence Malick’s Badlands or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. In retrospect, the film looks dated and doesn’t seem like it could scare anyone now, but the ideas behind the film are horrifying. In a way, Bo and Roy are more frightening than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, because their psychotic tendencies are hidden behind their everyday façade – they could literally be the boys next door, and they kill without a thought.
From a historical standpoint, The Boys Next Door features early performances by a couple of future legends. The role of the more sensitive and sensible Bo is played by a pre-“winning” Charlie Sheen, who had just come off of Red Dawn and would go on to become famous onscreen…and infamous off. The maniacal Roy is portrayed by Maxwell Caulfield, who had just been in the flop sequel Grease 2 and, despite continuing to work steadily, would always be just a recognizable face rather than a household name. Interestingly enough, neither Sheen nor Caulfield was Spheeris’ first choice for the film. Crispin Glover (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) auditioned for the part of Bo, but Spheeris found him “too psychotic” for the more passive role and was afraid that he would take the spotlight away from the real insane character in the film, Roy. In addition, Nicolas Cage (The Wicker Man) was asked to play Roy but, in a remarkable display of restraint for someone who never seems to reject a role, he turned it down. Despite the would-haves and could-haves, Penelope Spheeris can’t be too disappointed; Sheen and Caulfield both turn in great performances in The Boys Next Door.
Compared to the typical eighties psycho-killer movie, The Boys Next Door has surprisingly few visual effects. Most of the murders are committed with a gun, so there is none of the fun of slashing knifes or chopping axes. The makeup effects were done by Mark Shostrom (who worked on Videodrome and The Slumber Party Massacre, as well as providing makeup effects for films from the Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises), and they consist mostly of squib bullet holes and flowing streams of blood. Compared to most of his work from the eighties, Shostrom’s makeup effects in The Boys Next Door seem like a walk in the park, but the beauty is in the subtlety. The lack of hacked-up limbs and squirting arteries gives the film the realistic feel that makes it so disturbing.
Penelope Spheeris is a director who understands the importance of a memorable soundtrack and, like most of her films, The Boys Next Door has one. Typical of a Spheeris soundtrack, the music selections are all by punk or heavy metal bands like Great White, The Cramps, and Code Blue. The music is more than just background noise; the songs help to tell the story and make the scenes stick with the viewer. For example, in one scene where Roy and Bo go back to a homosexual man’s apartment with him, the guys put on “Clean the Dirt” by punk band Tex & the Horseheads, the line “if you really loved me you’d just go away” echoing through the room while they kill him. In another scene, Bo listens to Iggy Pop’s “I Got Nothin’” while he has sex with a woman just before Roy bursts in to ruin his fun. The songs marry themselves to the scenes, helping to solidify the moment in the viewer’s mind.
On the surface, eighties horror movies were full of masked killers and gushing blood that just begged to have an audience laugh and cheer them on. There were, however, a group of darker films that came out of the era as well. The Boys Next Door may lack the sensational elements of other films from the time period, but it makes up for it with sheer grit and realism.