The New Kids is an incredibly fun film from Sean S. Cunningham, who is best known as the director of the first Friday the 13th. His other most notable credit was being the producer of The Last House on the Left, which was Wes Craven’s first feature and perhaps his most infamous film. The film was initially released on VHS in the UK under the alternative title Striking Back, and some of the film’s drug use was chopped out under insistence by the BBFC.
The film itself is a real curiosity. It’s kind of like a Reaganomics version of Class of 1984, with the new kids of the title being this squeaky clean “JUST SAY NO” type kids, while the bad kids are these coke-snorting rednecks led by James Spader! The whole thing starts when Abby Williams (Lori Loughlin) and her brother Loren (Shannon Presby) move to this small town in Florida to live with their aunt and uncle after their parents die in a car crash. The relatives own a gas station and a bizarro Santa Claus-inspired theme park. They assimilate quickly, finding a boyfriend/girlfriend pretty quickly. However, Spader has a psychotic crush on Abby, and as you can imagine, it all comes down to a showdown at the amusement park.
It’s a pretty wild and trashy ’80s ride, with utterly unlikable protagonists and antagonists. Spader is the main reason to watch: he is absurdly intense for such a goofy movie, and according to everybody behind the film, he was kind of like that on set as well. His mane of blonde hair is almost Village of the Damned-like, which just adds to the creepiness—his character might be an albino, but it’s not particularly clear. Spader had a great run in the ’80s playing villainous characters in teen movies, with possibly his sleaziest in the underrated “adaptation” of Less Than Zero as Robert Downey Jr.’s Julian’s drug dealer-turned-pimp, Rip.
Stephen Gyllenhaal, who is the father of Jake and Maggie, wrote the bulk of the script. Basically, Cunningham asked a bunch of screenwriters to write something and his script was picked. By his own admission on the disc, Gyllenhaal isn’t that into horror movies; he would go on to be a director of mostly TV films, with a couple of features thrown in and all fairly run of the mill dramas. He would end up directing one of the last episodes of the second season of Twin Peaks. His screenplay for The New Kids is perfectly fine, but had some minor rewrites by Brian Taggert. Taggert is best known for V. and for films like Poltergeist III and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Other things worth mentioning are the hilariously awful Rocky like montage that arrives near the start of the film, as their dad (Tom Atkins) makes them do military training exercises every morning. The montage is scored by some almost Stadium-Springsteenesque knock-off tunes as well, which just adds to the ’80s-ness of it all. Eric Stoltz appears in the film as well, I think maybe he did this as a quickie after getting fired from Back to the Future. Overall it’s got a fun nasty streak, even with some weirdly pro-Reagan politics (which I don’t think was intentional) and plenty of the Ultra-Violence with Spader as the Alex DeLarge of the piece. It’s also probably Cunningham’s best film as a director.
The extras on the disc include commentary with film critics Sean Hogan and Jasper Sharp, and new interviews with Stephen Gyllenhaal. The booklet includes the following essays: “‘80s Gang Violence Movies and The New Kids” by Jon Towlson and “Pushing the Envelope: Sean Cunningham” by Barry Forshaw.