With Friday the 13th being a box office behemoth in 1980, many people seem to consider this to be the high-water mark of Sean S. Cunningham’s career. And while he hasn’t ever had a film that became part of the lexicon the way that Jason and his ubiquitous hockey mask have, it would be wrong to toss aside a career that is actually quite varied. And with some perspective, who knows if one could say this about all the films that came after Friday the 13th, but The New Kids (released in 1985) is certainly a movie that deserves a much better life than it’s had. In fact, it is so well done that The New Kids deserves to rise above it’s cult classic status… if it even has that!
Sean S. Cunningham started making films in the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until 1980’s Friday the 13th that his career really caught fire. That film made $60 million on a budget of $700,000. Then, to many, it seemed like Cunningham’s career sort of fell off. He made A Stranger Is Watching which didn’t do too much for him. He would then do movies like Spring Break and DeepStar Six. Again, none of them had the box office returns or interest that Friday the 13th did. Now, this is only one part of the story. It isn’t like Cunningham hasn’t been doing anything. He’s produced a bevy of seminal films like House and its sequels. He produced a bunch of the Friday the 13th sequels, although that can be misleading. In interviewing George Romero some years ago, he told me that all producing credits meant for him was that they had to show him the remakes/sequels of his films after they were made. Who knows what kind of deal Cunningham has?
Amidst all of these movies was 1985’s The New Kids. On the face of it this seemed to be yet another tale of teens in peril. In the hands of Sean Cunningham it became something else entirely. It eschewed many conventions and was brutal in a way that foreshadowed the films of Larry Clark many years later. It featured two major stars (Eric Stoltz and James Spader) in roles that, in the case of Spader, seemed to change the trajectory of his career. In the case of Stoltz he had a small role The New Kids at a time when Mask had established him as a leading man. Then there was the curious career of The New Kids star Shannon Presby who essentially left acting altogether after this film. In the process he became a highly reputable lawyer (more on that later). Lastly, it was released around the same time as Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and as such The New Kids was marketed as a horror movie. And while it was scary, The New Kids wasn’t a horror movie. But it was. And it was also a thriller. It experimented with it’s own genre. It turned character and story development on its ear. Sadly, the nuance of all this was lost because Columbia Pictures apparently wanted The New Kids to be something else. And with the awesome poster artwork (that for some unknown reason was nowhere near the 2005 DVD release) the opportunity for The New Kids to break out as something bigger and make more than $199,108 in 102 theaters was lost.
Abby (Lori Loughlin) and Loren (Shannon Presby) are brother and sister who tragically lose their parents within the first 15 minutes of this movie. They are taken in by their Aunt and Uncle who own a gas station and an amusement park (yes, an amusement park). One day a guy named Dutra (James Spader) comes to get gas. He asks Abby out and she politely declines. Upon hearing this, Dutra cusses her out and pretty much decides that he needs to kill Abby and her family. What ensues is a back and forth game of tit for tat that becomes very deadly. Aided in their fight by Mark (Eric Stoltz), Abby and Loren eventually have a final denouement with Dutra and his pals. Starting at a school dance and ending at the family run amusement park, Dutra and his henchmen soon realize that realize that Loren and Abby play for keeps as well.
Now, I know that my 5 cent description of The New Kids doesn’t at all do it any kind of justice. At the same time this movie really is a 1980s gem. It’s got all of the requisite things that so many of the other more popular films have. There’s action, violence, odd characterizations of different groups of people, rockin’ 80s music, and of course an appearance by 80s stalwart Tom Atkins. What’s about to follow are my reasons for why I think The New Kids deserves much better treatment than it has had previously. It needs more of a reception. More of a chance find its audience. Quite simply, The New Kids deserves a do-over. First of the DVD cover for the 2005 release was awful. It featured odd images of the stars, an axe (is there even one in the movie?), and did nothing to make anything but the original fanbase take an interest in its release. Quite simply, this article is a last ditch plea to get this fine film some more attention. In fact, I defy anyone to watch The New Kids and not be effected by it. Lastly, for those who think the actors have moved on… I was actually told that isn’t the case.
About 15 years ago I was working as an extra on the film The Shaggy Dog. A person working on that film had also worked on The New Kids. We got to talking one morning while I was in wardrobe. The person informed me that, apparently, every year James Spader and Eric Stoltz get together for a personal screening of The New Kids. Now, I don’t know if that was true. Nor do I know if this tradition is still happening. What I do know is that The New Kids, love it or hate it, is a very powerful film. It stays with you. And it obviously has stayed with the performers if they felt the need to create such a ritual around this movie. Here’s why I believe The New Kids has such staying power and deserves to be rediscovered…
It Flips Story Structure On Its Ear
As I mentioned before, when Abby dismisses the advances of Dutra all hell breaks loose. Sure, Loren, Abby’s brother, stokes this fire, but it is quite apparent that the fire inside Dutra and Co. was going to rage no matter what. Perhaps things went down quicker than expected? The reality is that movies don’t generally function in this way. As a fledgling screenwriter I am told about story structure all the time. I constantly hear about beats, pacing, and “What needs to happen on page so and so.” The New Kids ignores all of this. The screenplay by Steven Gyllenhaal and Brian Taggert wasn’t pieced together by accident. As I discussed earlier, Sean Cunningham wasn’t a neophyte director. With Friday the 13th he showed all too well that he knew what audiences wanted. It is my belief that that the structure, pacing, story beats and everything else was very deliberate. I think that the filmmakers wanted to experiment with the genre and the constructs of film. They eschewed the three act structure in favor of an ultravoilent trip that would rival A Clockwork Orange. Sure, Stanley Kubrick’s film might merit more notice simply because it’s a better movie. However, to deny that The New Kids isn’t in the same family would be doing both films a disservice. On top that, in many ways, The New Kids is a far more accessible film. It just didn’t have the muscle behind it (yes, even with a giant like Columbia Pictures behind it) to make people see this.
The New Kids Changed the Trajectory of James Spader’s Career
I discussed this earlier. Now I will delve into this idea a bit deeper. Before The New Kids James Spader was everybody’s heartthrob based on his turn as Morgan Hiller in Tuff Turf. You can cite other films or actors but in the spring of 1985, there really wasn’t a young thespian who had captivated us the way that Spader had in this movie. Sure, Robert Downey, Jr. was a lot of fun in Tuff Turf as Hiller’s friend Jimmy Parker, but the movie belonged to Spader. He did such a fine job that we didn’t even pay too much attention to baddie Nick Hauser (Paul Mones), and he was quite good in Tuff Turf. So it makes sense that after this film Spader would become the new IT boy. A thinking man’s leading actor that could carry on the mantle of say… Harrison Ford. However, Spader did not go that route. In fact he went very dark when he took on the role of Dutra in The New Kids. This character was the personification of evil. Dutra seemed to give all his victims one chance to be with him. If they blew that than heaven help them. As I mentioned above, the character of Abby politely declines his advances and Dutra decides she and her family have to pay. Dearly. However, what came after this for Spader is what is most interesting. It was as if the portrayal of Dutra infected his decision making process. Look at Pretty In Pink. His character Steff is on a whole other level of jerkdom. In Mannequin, in the role of Richards, it was more of the same. Sure, Mannequin was a fun movie but the difference between Richards and Dutra is a very thin hair to split. Less Than Zero was more of the same when Spader played the role of Rip. In fact, it would take the character of Graham Dalton in Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 breakout film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, to once again re-establish James Spader as a thinking man’s good guy. What followed after that was a Hodge-podge of interesting roles in movies big and small. One can thank the over-the-edge role of Dutra in The New Kids for aiding in Spader’s career evolution.
Did The New Kids Only Come Out Because of Mask?
Was The New Kids only released because of Eric Stoltz performance as Rocky Dennis in the movie Mask? Stoltz WAS nominated for a Golden Globe. That might’ve been all Columbia Pictures needed to release this film in the cursory manner in which it was. In fact, when I saw this movie in the theater, I remember buying my ticket and thinking that Stoltz was the star. Perhaps I have switched the events in my mind a little bit as these films came out so close together. Initially, as I was doing my research for this piece, I was convinced that Mask came out and then the The New Kids followed it up. In my mind, I was thinking that Columbia Pictures, buoyed by Eric Stoltz strong performance as Rocky Dennis, figured that they could capitalize on that by marketing The New Kids as his next movie. I even recall being interested in that film because I wanted to see more from this new actor. However, that is precisely the opposite of how these films were released. The New Kids came out on January of 1985. Mask hit theaters in March of that year. Now, while Stoltz is obviously a gifted actor, there’s probably little to no chance that any executive caught wind of his box office potential through early screenings of The New Kids. Also, these two films are two totally different animals. One was a thriller/suspense film geared for a fun time at the movies. The other was the stuff of what Academy Award dreams are made of. (And Mask did in fact achieve this lofty goal with an Academy Award for Best Makeup.) This doesn’t mean that Mask wasn’t screened at some point before both these films were released. There was probably buzz on Eric Stoltz terrific turn as Rocky Dennis, and maybe the power’s that be behind The New Kids figured they could capitalize on that a little bit. Truthfully, the biggest hole in that theory is the aforementioned release patterns of both films.
The New Kids Was Marketed Wrong
Columbia Pictures has been in business forever. Their marketing department is clearly filled with people who know what they are doing. They can sell films. You don’t stay in business for 94 years without having the ability to sell just about anything. So why did they drop the ball on such an obvious slam dunk as The New Kids? They presented it as a horror movie! Going back to the one sheet, it featured our main characters in what looks like a dystopian fun house. There are clown faces and prizes at a shooting gallery in which guns are trained on Lori Loughlin and Shannon Presby. They marketed this as a ” A New Ticket to Terror” and cited Sean Cunningham’s bonafides. However, this wasn’t a horror movie and it was terrifying. What The New Kids was was an Afterschool Special on crack. It was a hyper-charged, ultra-violent thrill ride that was actually a pretty interesting study on the interpersonal relationships of high schoolers. Yes, I know that Dutra and his band of marauders is a fairly extreme case. However, why not sell the film as that rather than a horror film? People show up wanting terror. They want to see bloodshed. Quite simply, they want to be scared. The New Kids isn’t scary in that way. The thrills are more visceral. They are more tied to our emotional investment in the characters. This movie is tightly constructed. It has a 110 minute run time. It probably would’ve fared better if it would’ve been brought out that way. Who knows? Maybe I am wrong? Perhaps The New Kids was just one of those movies that audiences weren’t into. Maybe they never would’ve been it? Perhaps, it needs to be re-discovered by today’s “millennial horror” audience who gravitate to it for whatever reason they gravitate to things? One thing is clear, more people need to know about and appreciate this film.
Requiem for Shannon Presby
James Spader has gone on to have a one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood. The guy’s done Secretary and been the voice of Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Lori Loughlin did, among other things, a successful turn on the ever popular Full House. So… what in the world happened to Shannon Presby? After The New Kids, Presby appeared on 7 episodes of a show called Five Mile Creek. Before that, he was a guest star on such shows as CHiPs and Diff’rent Strokes. Why in the world didn’t he have more of a career? Having done some research into this it is clear that Presby didn’t just fade away. He didn’t become some out of work actor that fell into a drug-riddled spiral. Presby actually became a lawyer. According to IMDB, in 2012 he prosecuted a cold case and obtained a murder conviction. How cool might it be if Presby were to play himself in a TV movie based on his exploits? So why didn’t he continue acting? Well, there could be many reasons. The most plausible is that acting is a tough life. Being a lawyer was probably more appealing and stable than the up and down world of a working actor.
The New Kids Sequel That Never Was
The New Kids ends with the brother of one of the slain bad guys watching our main characters as they happily drive off in car. Life has gone back to normal and Dutra and his ilk are no more. Or, are they? The brother’s stare is ominous and seems to signal that a possible sequel could be afoot with a new band of baddies. Truthfully, once this movie made next to nothing those hopes were probably dashed. However, a sequel could actually still be made. In fact it could be a wholly new movie that is only related to The New Kids in a tangential way. This new version could rid itself of the poor portrayals of southern people. It could create a story where maybe it follows the younger brother that we left off with as a father in 2018? Maybe he’s waited to have kids of his own? His kids have been born and bred to go after the children of the people who killed his parents. As a longtime fan of The New Kids this is something I can’t help thinking about. The story is a time worn tale of a fish out of water learning to survive in a much harsher environment. What made The New Kids stand out so much was the fact that it was much harsher than almost any movie of its kind before or since.