Maybe people remember comedies like Wayne’s World and Clueless better, but Penelope Spheeris came to prominence with a pair of bracingly dark movies: 1981’s landmark punk-rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and 1985’s The Boys Next Door. Both take place mostly on the west side of Los Angeles, amongst the burgeoning punk and mod counterculture there. But the documentary is actually about the counterculture, and the fiction film is merely among it. The Boys Next Door is trying to be about people who are even more nihilistic and hopeless, and suffers a bit for it.
The movie opens with pictures of several well-known serial killers and rapists such as David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and Edmund Kemper, and news-clip voiceover talking about how damaged they were, both socially and sexually. At that point it should be clear that things are not going to turn out too well for Beau (Charlie Sheen) and Ray (Maxwell Caulfield), two teenage burnouts from the San Fernando Valley who are staring down monotonous blue-collar lives after their imminent high school graduation. They head out on a spur-of-the-moment trip to L.A. to have some fun, but their definition of “fun” is quite a bit different than yours or mine.
One wonders if that serial-killer montage at the beginning of the film was inserted later, perhaps at studio insistence, because the screenplay by James Wong and Glen Morgan (who would go on to be successful writers on The X-Files and create the Final Destination movie series) takes an awfully long time to get to the creepy parts. If you didn’t know that the film wants a connection drawn between these guys and the Son of Sam, the first half hour or so of The Boys Next Door would look like a fairly typical slobs-versus-snobs teen film, on the order of Summer School or Dream a Little Dream. That could have been Wong and Morgan’s intention all along: get us rooting for these guys a little bit, and then giant horrifying swerve.
But even after the swerve, The Boys Next Door only commits to being scary in a piecemeal fashion. The moments of actual violence are chilling, but in between this seems like a very average film about a couple of buffoons out on the town. Their encounter with an aging hippie (played by Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit) doesn’t turn scary until the violence starts, which is the wrong way to go. The plan should be for audiences to be watching in fear of the next violent act, as in a far superior film released a year later, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
This film also suffers a little by comparison with Henry in that Henry starred the peerless Michael Rooker, while Sheen and Maxwell don’t quite match him. Part of it is that they’re both young – although Sheen had been in Red Dawn before this, he was still a year away from Platoon and two years away from Wall Street – but most of it is that they’re just not creepy enough. When Maxwell growls “Fuck the world,” it’s supposed to be a scary moment, but it drew laughs from most of those Movie Klubbers in attendance.
Actually, I thought that this film might have worked better if Sheen and Maxwell had switched roles. Maybe it’s just his recent public meltdowns that are influencing my thinking, but it seems that Sheen could do “unhinged” better than Maxwell could. Sheen is too blank in the movie’s casual scenes, and too loud in the big scenes, a pair of tendencies that would work better as Ray. Also, the film’s strong homoerotic tendencies would probably work better if Sheen played Ray; Sheen could play the stereotypical homophobic-closet-case better than Maxwell does.
If Henry is an A among serial-killer movies, most of The Boys Next Door is a B: not quite as good, but not a disaster. Sadly, that changes at the climax of the film. Beau and Ray are chased by the cops in a scene which hits all the wrong beats, portraying this pair of murderous dead-enders as a pair of heroes who have a chance of escape. Everything about the climax – the camera work, the driving rock score, the performances from Sheen and Maxwell – suggests a chase scene where the escape of the protagonists would be a positive thing. The entire climax of this movie seems to have forgotten that these two guys have murdered several people, and thus it bungles whatever honest emotion might have come before.
All of the countercultural aspects of this movie must have been near and dear to Spheeris’ heart; while filming The Decline of Western Civilization she must have met a number of people who resembled characters in this movie (it’s no coincidence that the happiest Beau gets in the movie is when he sees a group of real punk-rock types). That might have even caused her to sympathize with Beau and Ray a bit; the classic “there but for the grace of God go I” position. But no amount of sympathy will save these characters or justify this acting; better not to consider it. This is a film which needed to be creepier and scarier, else whatever messages it was aiming for would be lost.
Reviewed by Mark Young