In the 1980’s, horror movies were defined by the slasher sub-genre. Similarly, the action-thriller genre was all about vengeance. Revenge thrillers were all the rage in the decade of excess and neon. Death Wish sequels, Ms 45, Savage Streets, The Exterminator, Vigilante, Fighting Back. Most of these movies were grimy, violent, low-budget affairs. And then there was the pessimistic outlook on American kids. Specifically, ‘youth-gone-wild’ movies dropped the revenge thriller template into hellish schools. These were movies where psychopathic bullies pushed clean-cut kids to their breaking point. It’s a small sub-genre that gave us the cult classic, Class of 1984, along with 3:15 (The Moment of Truth), Tuff Turf, and Brotherhood of Justice. Even Friday the 13th director, Sean S Cunningham, got in on the act. Though it was a box office dud, Cunningham’s The New Kids has since gained something of a cult following.
The New Kids Formulaic, But Gets Enough Right
As far as revenge thrillers go, The New Kids is about as formulaic as it gets. After their parents’ die in a tragic car accident, brother and sister, Loren and Abby, move to a small Florida town to live with their uncle. On their first day at a new school, Abby catches the eye of sadistic bully, Dutra, and his gang of thugs. When she turns him down, Dutra begins a deadly campaign of escalating harassment that pushes the ‘new kids’ to fight back. Everything culminates in a ‘fight-to-the-death’ in an amusement park.
All the plot beats are familiar, but Cunningham executes them with enough competence to overcome these limitations and budgetary constraints.
Nothing about Stephen Gyllenhaal’s story is particularly original. In fact, The New Kids is the definition of formulaic. Revenge-thrillers set in high schools with predatory bullies were a ‘dime-a-dozen’ in the 80’s. Still The New Kids benefits from director Sean S Cunningham’s reliable hand. All the plot beats are familiar, but Cunningham executes them with enough competence to overcome these limitations and budgetary constraints. Dutra and his gang are despicable enough for you to hate, and the amusement park finale has better-than-expected action. And everything moves along at a quick enough pace to never get boring.
The New Kids Takes a Softer Approach to 70’s Exploitation
When Columbia Pictures released Cunningham’s The New Kids, it was already the mid-80s’s. The Grindhouse exploitation movies of the 1970’s were disappearing along with the independent theatres that screened them. Of course, there were studios like The Cannon Group, that still specialized in largely B-movies. And Grindhouse aesthetics found their way into the slew of low-budget vigilante movies. These movies , which included Ms 45, Class of 1984, and The Exterminator, permeated the early part of the decade.
Despite its violence and low-budget, The New Kids is also more sanitized than the other ‘youth-gone-wild’ movies of the 80’s.
The New Kids existed somewhere on the border of these rougher-edge movies. Though Cunningham already knew his way around the horror genre – having directed Friday the 13th and collaborated with Wes Craven on The Last House on the Left – some of his earliest directorial efforts were family movies. Even Friday the 13th was never as sleazy as its 70’s splatter counterparts. Despite its violence and low-budget, The New Kids is also more sanitized than the other ‘youth-gone-wild’ movies of the 80’s. For instance, Dutra’s harassment of ‘the new kids’ never approaches the sadistic levels of violence of other movies in the sub-genre. Cunningham also eschews the sexual violence found in some of these movies. With its sunny montages and rousing final confrontation, The New Kids may have more in common with Cunningham’s teen sex romp, Spring Break, than Class of 1984.
Young, Rising Stars Give B-Thriller a Boost
Watch enough movies from the 1980’s and you’ll find some famous faces ‘slumming it early in their careers. George Clooney showed up in Return to Horror High, while Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter had supporting roles in The Burning. Poor Jennifer Aniston starred in Leprechaun. Both Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey probably hope no one remembers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Of course, every horror fan knows Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp had early roles in Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, respectively. Today, horror movies have regained past prestige. But in the 1980’s, aspiring actors used horror as a stepping stone.
A few familiar, young faces had early roles in The New Kids. Most notably, The New Kids gave James Spader a chance to try out the villainous persona he’d later perfect in The Blacklist and Avengers: Age of Ultron. What’s always interesting when you watch early performances of celebrated actors and actresses – they stand out amongst their cast in those old movies. Jason Alexander is just a supporting character in The Burning, but he has a charisma that clearly sets him apart. Similarly, Spader stands out and often feels ‘bigger’ than the movie. Former Full House star Lori Loughlin is better known today for the Varsity Blues scandal, but she’s also better than what you’ll typically find in the sub-genre.
The New Kids Falls Short of Cult Classic Status
So is The New Kids a ‘guilty pleasure’ or a generic retread? To be honest, it’s hard to peg this revenge-thriller down. Technically, it’s a better made than most of the exploitation revenge-thrillers from the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Massacre at Central High, 3:15: The Moment of Truth, and Class of 1984 are cheaper-looking and less capably directed. On the other hand, those movies were genuine exploitation flicks with the sort of transgressive violence that’s not easy to forget. Comparatively, The New Kids is kind of an unremarkable, forgettable thriller. It’s too cheap and pulpy to be taken seriously, but not grimy enough to be a genuine exploitation movie.