Director: Penelope Spheeris
Writers: Glen Morgan, James Wong
Starring: Maxwell Caulfield, Charlie Sheen, Christopher McDonald
Year: 1985
Duration: 91 mins
Country: US
BBFC Certification: 15

The Boys Next Door wrong foots you twice during its opening moments. Firstly, there are the titles. Pictures of real life serial killers, from Ed Kemper to the Ted Bundy, fade in and out on screen, accompanied by a detached, unsettling narration. These men, the film tells us, seemed so normal, their day to day behaviour completely incongruous compared to the heinous and horrifically violent crimes they committed. Then the film’s title slams onto the screen: The Boys Next Door. What we are presumably about to see, then, is a similar tale of nice All American young men who harbour dark desires behind perfect white teeth and charming affability. 

Yet The Boys Next Door isn’t really about serial killers at all. Yes, it does focus on young men who commit murder, but these aren’t the kind of homicidal crimes that take place over weeks, months or years. Instead (as Stephen Thrower notes in his interview on this new Blu Ray edition from 101 Films) what The Boys Next Door captures with such brutal intensity is a spree killing, which is something very different indeed. Nor do the film’s young leads, Roy (Maxwell Caulfield) and Bo (Charlie Sheen), come across as the kind of genial American teens you’d happily invite over to meet your Mother. Rough and unhinged from the start, you’d probably cross the street to avoid them. Hardly Boys Next Door at all.

Yet while the opening and the title (both changed last minute at a Producer’s insistence) may hint at an uneven and confused movie to follow, it is soon clear that director Penelope Spheeris is going to steer The Boys Next Door with a very firm hand indeed. Assured and confidant, she goes on to create a dark, disturbing portrait of disenfranchised American youth that to this day stands as a criminally little seen cult gem from the 1980s.

It is rather remarkable that The Boys Next Door was only Spheeris’ second narrative feature film, coming after Suburbia (also being released as a limited edition Blu Ray by 101 Films) and punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation. Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong (who would go on to work on The X-Files) The Boys Next Door focuses on the friendship between Roy and Bo, two high school losers who are swiftly drifting toward a life working in a local factory. Shunned by the girls in their school (with men as good looking and as charismatic as Caulfield and Sheen, this plot point does stretch credulity somewhat) Roy and Bo decide to spend the weekend after graduation in L.A. While there, the rage and frustration they feel at their current lives and seemingly empty futures spills over into a sickening and escalating campaign of violence.

Less Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and more akin to an 80s take on Badlands (starring Sheen’s father, Martin) The Boys Next Door actually starts out, considering the later subject matter, with a rather light tone. Scored by a pounding punk rock soundtrack, Spheeris vividly captures the sense of teenage hedonism that fuels the two boys through their wild weekend, helped in no small part by the great chemistry between Caulfield and Sheen themselves. You really get the sense that these are two people who have grown up together, with an easy, loose camaraderie flowing between them.

Watching the film today, while it is Charlie Sheen who remains the household name, it is Caulfield who shines the brightest. Burnt by his experiences and bad luck on Grease 2 (where he was dropped from a three film contract) Caulfield blasts through The Boys Next Door like he has something to prove. With dead eyes and a persona shimmering with bleak nihilistic rage, Roy is the dark heart of the film, with Caulfield’s performance layering unrequited lust, rage, loneliness and despair into a terrifying, unsettling whole. Sheen, by contrast, plays second fiddle, although his natural charisma helps him sail through. While the best performance in the film can be attributed to Kenneth Cortland’s Dwaye (just watch his stunning five minute scene with two police detectives) there is no doubt that The Boys Next Door, rightly and deservedly, belongs to Caulfield.

The visceral feel of the boys relationship is reflected in Spheeris’ evocation of mid-80s L.A. Her documentary background shines through here, with the city and its inhabitants captured with a gritty and honest authenticity. From hiring a group of punk friends to play street musicians to refusing to allow stereotypes to dominate certain scenes and locations, the reality of the world that the two boys inhabit makes their violent crimes feel all the more shocking and sickening.

Yet unfortunately Spheeris’s adherence to reality and verisimilitude doesn’t carry through to every aspect of the movie, which in turn leads to its biggest flaw. Although she came to regret it in later years, Spheeris scores every moment of violence in The Boys Next Door with a thumping 80s rock soundtrack. While this doesn’t glorify the violence (as she feared) it certainly helps to undermine the seriousness of what we are witnessing. 

This leads onto a second problem. Throughout the film, Spheeris can never seem to decide if her main characters are villains or tragic anti-heroes. Their acts certainly cast them as the former, yet the film’s depiction of them never seems to stray too far away from a certain degree of sympathy. Neither Spheeris nor the screenplay ever seems to definitively take one side or the other, leaving the film feeling slightly unbalanced and confused as the end credits roll.

The ending still manages to pack a punch, however. Despite an occasionally uneven tone (which feels most abrasive during those moments of violence) The Boys Next Door remains a gripping and thought provoking thriller. While it is neither as elegant or as moving as similar fare such as Badlands, it is certainly a film that deserves to be brought to a wider audience (the production company behind the film going bust and thus denying it a cinematic release perhaps explains why it is not as well known as it should be). Thanks to Caulfield adding a real sense of unsettling menace, The Boys Next Door emerges as one of the 80s darkest explorations of the teen experience, that still has as much to say today about younger people’s alienation and hopelessness as it did upon its release more than thirty five years ago.

The Boys Next Door is being released by 101 Films, as part of their Black Label Series. The picture quality is great throughout, with a healthy grain and decent fine detail. It can look a little soft in places, but this most likely down to the source used.  There are lots of night time scenes which have been well encoded. Sound is equally decent, with clear dialogue and a meaty punch to the music. Overall, this is a great A/V presentation that fans should be very happy with.

Like the rest of the Black Label series, The Boys Next Door comes with a slipcase and booklet (I didn’t receive a copy of the  booklet for the review unfortunately). The disc is fairly well stacked with extras too…

  • Audio commentary with director Penelope Spheeris and actor Maxwell Caulfield
  • Blind Rage: Interview with Stephen Thrower, author of Nightmare USA
  • Both Sides of the Law: Interview with actors Maxwell Caulfield and Christopher McDonald
  • Give Us Your Money: Interviews with street band performers Texacala Jones and Tequila Mockingbird
  • Caveman Day: Cinemaniacs interview with director Penelope Spheeris and actor Maxwell Caulfield
  • Tales from the End Zone: Interview with actor Kenneth Cortland
  • The Psychotronic Tourist – The Boys Next Door
  • Alternate Opening Title Sequence & Extended Scenes (Silent)
  • Trailer

Commentary: The big extra on the disc is a commentary from Maxwell Caulfield and Penelope Spheeris. They have great fun reminiscing about the film, offering interesting trivia (look out for The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis’ Dad as a barman!) as well as a more balanced discussion about the film’s depiction of violence. Looking back on the movie, it is clear that Spheeris would like to change quite a lot, especially in regards to the film’s use of music. Overall this is a great and informative commentary (but it is worth offering a word of caution, however…Caulfield uses, naively rather than viciously, some offensive language at a few points during the track, especially during the scene with the gas station attendant).

Blind Rage: Author and critic Stephen Thrower discusses The Boys Next Door, analysing the characters and themes, with a special focus on Bo and Roy. He also goes into detail discussing the film’s violence and its depiction of homosexual characters. This is a great, informative piece that is well worth a watch.

Both Sides of the Law: In this interview, Maxwell Caulfield and Christopher McDonald (who also starred together in Grease 2) sit together to discuss The Boys Next Door. This is a fun, loose conversation covering their experience working on film sets and working with Penelope Spheeris in particular. Caulfield offers a lengthy but funny anecdote about how he came up with an idea for the film as well. 

Give Us Your Money: This is a brief piece featuring two interviews from the street band in the film.  They discuss how they got involved (they were friends with Spheeris) and their experience of the shoot.

Caveman Day: In a similar interview to Both Sides of the Law, Maxwell Caulfield sits with director Penelope Spheeris to discuss The Boys Next Door. They cover a wide range of subjects, including the film’s dapper producer, working with Charlie Sheen (who turned up halfway through the shoot sporting a new tattoo!) and the film’s difficulty with the MPAA. 

Tales from the End Zone: This is a brief ten minute interview with Kenneth Cortland, who has a short but memorable role in the film. He discusses, among other things, how the film was ahead of its time in its depiction of homosexual characters and how the scene he filmed felt incredibly real, which greatly helped with his performance.

The Psychotronic Tourist: This is a fun look at the film’s various locations. Each short segment is full of fun trivia about the movie and L.A. itself. A great watch.

Alternate Opening Title Sequence & Extended Scenes: A far superior opening sequence than the one used in the film is shown here, along with two extended scenes that are more graphic than what was used in the final cut. The last scene in particular feels far more realistic and should ideally have been used!

The disc is rounded out with a trailer.

Overall this is another great addition to 101’s Black Label Series. Along with Suburbia, this should make a great double bill highlighting the early career of Penelope Spheeris. Some limited editions on the Black Label tend to sell out rather fast, so fans should snap up this fantastic release of The Boys Next Door as soon as they are able.

The Boys Next Door
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