Ever since the resurgence of the slasher film in the early eighties, teenagers have been the staple victims in horror movies. Whether it’s a lone babysitter trapped in a dark house or a group of camp counselors stranded in the woods, the relative innocence and inexperience of adolescents make them ripe for the picking. In 1985, Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham went one better by making kids both the heroes and the villains, an effort that resulted in the teenage horror film The New Kids.
The New Kids is the story of Abby and Loren McWilliams (Lori Loughlin of “Full House” and Shannon Presby of “Five Mile Creek”), a pair of siblings who, because of their parents untimely death, are sent to a small town called Glenby in Florida to live with their Uncle Charlie (C.H.U.D.’s Eddie Jones). At first, things go well for Abby and Loren in Glenby; Abby starts dating a young man from her math class named Mark (Mask’s Eric Stoltz), Loren hooks up with the sheriff’s daughter (Paige Lyn Price from All the Right Moves), and the kids help Uncle Charlie with his plan to reopen his run-down amusement park. However, it doesn’t take long for Abby to attract the attention of a group of juvenile delinquents led by Eddie Dutra (James Spader from Pretty in Pink and Mannequin) who make bets with each other as to which one will be the first to score with Abby. Loren comes to her defense and the gang shifts its focus towards him, starting fights with him at school and terrorizing him everywhere he goes. Dutra’s rage becomes more and more volatile, and the only place it leads him is straight to Loren. Loren and Abby head for an explosive showdown with Dutra and his gang, and not everyone will come out in one piece.
The New Kids is a lesser known product of a short-lived teenage nihilistic subgenre that emerged in the early eighties that included films like Tuff Turf, Class of 1984 and Savage Streets. These films sensationalized a violent and destructive view of high school and, although they were hardly realistic, the images that they displayed onscreen terrified parents of teenagers. The New Kids may not be as violence oriented as some of the other high-school hoodlum films but, because it is directed by Sean S. Cunningham (who, in addition to the original Friday the 13th, also directed Deep Star Six and A Stranger is Watching), it still contains plenty of blood and guts.
The screenplay for The New Kids was written by horror scribe Brian Taggert (Of Unknown Origin, Omen IV: The Awakening, Poltergeist III) along with Stephen Gyllenhaal (Homegrown). Taggert and Gyllenhaal’s script is more rural than its gang affiliated contemporaries, which gives it a more family-oriented vibe. It’s still brutal, but the relationship between Abby and Loren coupled with the small town setting gives the horrifying story a wholesome aspect; the film seems to combine the values of John Hughes with the violence of Quentin Tarantino, making it equal parts high school and horror. The film is not a typical horror film; it’s scary in more of a Fatal Attraction kind of way than Halloween. Although it plays out like a typical good hero/bad villain plot, The New Kids is set apart from similar films because of the strong family bond between Abby and Loren in their new surroundings.
The first two acts of The New Kids proceed just as they should; Abby and Loren find themselves as fish out of water in the new town, struggling to relate to the locals and finding their niche, only to meet with opposition from Dutra and his gang. The third act, the inevitable showdown between the New Kids and Dutra’s gang, is well worth the wait. Of course, it takes place exactly where the viewer expects it to happen, at the amusement park, and the obstacle course-type setting is a great place for the final battle. The game of cat-and-mouse that is played between Loren and Dutra is a bloody massacre of a good time, giving The New Kids one of the most enjoyable and influential climaxes in slasher movie history.
James Spader’s Eddie Dutra is a terrific villain. He is part tough guy and part drug addict, but all jerk. He is the kind of bully that everyone has dealt with at some point in time or another, a guy who is much tougher with his gang of thugs standing behind him. James Spader’s performance is typical James Spader, as the actor brings out the cocky arrogance of the character with a perfection that makes his eventual and unavoidable demise absolutely and completely satisfying for the viewer.
Another historical footnote to The New Kids is the musical score; it was written by none other than the legendary and prolific Lalo Schifrin, composer of the iconic themes from “Mission: Impossible” and The Amityville Horror, as well as just about everything in between. Schifrin’s score for The New Kids may not be quite as memorable or universal as some of his more well-known work, but a bad Schifrin score is better than the best cut-rate soundtrack and the music for The New Kids fits in perfectly with what the film tries to be – an eighties action-horror film about teenagers gone bad.
The New Kids may not be as big of a feather in Sean S. Cunningham’s cap as Friday the 13th, but it is a watchable entry into the bleak, violent high-school films that horrified parents in the simpler times of the early eighties. The New Kids succeeds at what it intends to do: shock, scare and entertain, and it looks good doing it.