starring Maxwell Caulfield, Charlie Sheen, Patti D'Arbanville
screenplay by Glen Morgan & James Wong
directed by Penelope Spheeris
by Walter Chaw Wearing the white undershirt and blue jeans popularized as the uniform of disenfranchised youth since James Dean, Charlie Sheen's Bo Richards in The Boys Next Door dresses the dress, but doesn't exactly walking the walk. The first thing that should spring to mind when Sheen the younger staggers in from stage right in a thriller-killer film is his father, Martin, playing the same role in Terence Malick's middle-American masterpiece Badlands fourteen years previous. The key difference is that not only is there a decade in which Martin Sheen used to be able to act (not so, Charlie), but that where Martin's Kit Carruthers is the proactive force behind his murderous rampage, Charlie plays more the wilting, Sissy Spacek tagalong.
Bo is the ditzy best friend of dim-witted bad seed Roy Alston (Maxwell Caulfield); both are the kind of insouciant greasers favoured by the young adult novels of S.E. Hinton. After the end of their senior year, Bo and Roy decide to take a road trip to Los Angeles to blow off a little of their frustration with the looming dead-end of the rest of their lives, neither of them realizing the nascent homosexuality that obviously haunts Roy, manifesting in his deep-rooted hatred of women and his protective posture in regards to his loyal pal. Before long, Roy is beating a hapless gas station attendant, killing a "fag," and then murdering a woman who has the temerity to show the grateful Bo a good time.
The first major misstep of James Wong and Glen Morgan's ("The X Files") screenplay (both were seventeen at the time of its inception) is that their teen malcontents are clearly so from the start, belying the appellation "boys next door." No one should be terribly surprised when Bo and Roy start killing folks, even though what it is that makes Roy a monster and Bo a follower hasn't been established. It's taken for granted, in other words, that we're familiar with the conventions of the outlaw road film, and the pretense of psychological depth suggested by an effective title sequence (describing the thoughts and actions of a litany of white male serial killers) remains merely a tantalizing suggestion. The Boys Next Door is something of a soft-core exploitation film with no nudity, little blood, and a scenery-chewing performance from British actor Caulfield. (Still reeling, no doubt, from the resounding thud of Grease 2.)
Making things worse is the lack of any compelling secondary performances. The bumbling detectives on our anti-heroes' trail are portrayed by honorary member of the walking dead, Hank Garrett, and irritating bug-eyed character actor Christopher McDonald, and the victims run the gamut from the truly annoying to the completely anonymous. The problem with an incompetent secondary cast is that rather than their deaths and struggles being poignant, they're ironically every bit the ciphers for us as they are for the soulless killers. The message of the film is clearly that anyone can be a murderer or be murdered at any moment, yet the failure of the film lies in the plain truth that if you saw Bo and Roy swaggering their redneck way towards you, you'd cross the street.
Best known for a trio of counter-culture documentaries (The Decline of Western Civilization I-III) and mainstream comedies like the surprisingly good Wayne's World and the predictably bad Black Sheep, Penelope Spheeris has always been known as something of a bad girl maverick, if not ever a particularly talented director. The Boys Next Door fits comfortably into Spheeris's portfolio as a thinly-veiled, underwritten exploitation flick with bad performances, a sterile teen angst slasher road movie of minimal thrills. It joins Keanu Reeves's Youngblood, and Charlie's own The Wraith as dubious cult classics, one suspects mostly on the strength of its deadly earnestness, its Eighties punk soundtrack, and for a scene in which an unconvincing Charlie Sheen gets busy with a Wiccan barfly.
Anchor Bay's recent DVD release of The Boys Next Door is presented in an admirable 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer that, while failing to disguise the age of the film, does clean up the print as much as possible given the film's low-budget origins. The colours are drab, reminding the most of a made for television movie, but with some minimum edge enhancement, The Boys Next Door displays a goodly amount of crispness and clarity. Luckily the place where the transfer appears to be the weakest, in the uneven black shading of the night shots, actually helps lend much-needed atmosphere. The sound, a flat Dolby 2.0 Mono track, is unremarkable, although volume is adequate and, but for an early party scene, the punk soundtrack manages not to obscure the dialogue.
Director Spheeris and star Caulfield lend a commentary track to the production that is indicated more by extended, uncomfortable silences than by any kind of real insight. It's sort of interesting to learn that Nicolas Cage turned down the Caulfield role; the rest of the discussion seems mainly focused on how nicely unrepentant egoist Caulfield has aged. The track is useful in picking out Moon Unit Zappa from a throng of unusually unattractive high-school girl extras who appear to be on loan from Troma. As always for Anchor Bay, however, the talent biographies (featuring Spheeris, Caulfield, and Sheen), are a surprise treasure--lengthy, in-depth, and holding a wealth of biographical information that enriches one's enjoyment of the film. An amusingly dated trailer rounds out the modest DVD package. Originally published: June 28, 2001.