After-school special realness / Flawed but essential / I'm traumatized but it sort of feels good / Maxwell Caulfield / More feminist than you'd think / Provocative and problematic / Psychological Thrillers / Queerer than you'd think / Teensploitation / This film IS America / This movie shaped my brain for all time

Movie Discussion: Penelope Spheeris’ The Boys Next Door (1985)

boys_next_door_poster_01Girl Meets Context: February is going to be Freak’s Choice – where we watch and discuss some of the most formative films from Sean’s adolescence. We kick things off with Penelope Spheeris’ grimy teensploitation flick about two graduating high school seniors in a small town named Bo (Charlie Sheen) and Roy (Maxwell Caulfield) who are disaffected and alienated from their peers. After crashing a graduation party and causing trouble (Roy urinates in the pool, Bo steals the home’s lapdog), they set off on an impromptu road trip to Los Angeles. Once they arrive, however, Roy’s behavior begins to get more violent and unpredictable – he beats a gas station attendant to a bloody pulp, hurls a beer bottle at an elderly woman’s head, drives at high speeds around a parking lot with a terrified woman on the hood of his car… Eventually the boys pick up a gay man from a local bar and murder him in his home. As Bo begins to realize that their crime spree is only going to keep claiming more lives (most notably after Roy brutally strangles Angie (Patti D’Arbanville) after she has sex with Bo), he is faced with a choice: follow Roy to a bloody and violent end or break free of his influence. Underseen and underrated, The Boys Next Door isn’t as well-known as Spheeris’ more high-profile films, from punk cult classics like  Suburbia (1984) and The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) to mainstream blockbusters like Wayne’s World (1992). Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen The Boys Next Door, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: So, we watched four movies back-to-back, got delirious, drank tons of coffee and chewed our toes off. I’m curious, now that it’s been a while, which of the movies is most resonant in your memory?

Kristine: The Boys Next Door, no question.

Sean: Rewatching The Boys Next Door for the first time since the night I saw it when I was eleven was weird. It definitely felt dated, but not in a bad way. It is pretty time-capsuley, in terms of embodying a cultural moment/era in a very pop, very constructed and cinematic way.  But it aged better than some of the other movies.

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Just two reg’lar guys and their boner between them

Kristine: Yes, for sure.  I was going to say that this movie felt very much “of the ‘80s,” but it didn’t feel stale or inaccessible.

Sean: Right? I’ve told you previously that this movie was very key to my adolescent sexual awakening. I saw it in the middle of the night on HBO with no context and thought it was the most erotic thing ever. I literally became sexual in the 90 minutes it took this movie to play out.

Kristine: Ha! I am dying.

Sean: I think it’s crazy that it is the movie Spheeris made right after Suburbia.

Kristine: You know that Surburbia is one of my main jams from back in the day. As a teen I watched it dozens of times (and I am not the kind to rewatch movies obsessively), I owned it, I still own the soundtrack on vinyl, I have screened it for countless boyfriends, I know all the dialogue by heart…

Sean: I mean, is there something cosmic about the Spheeris connection here? That teen Kristine swooned for Suburbia while pre-teen Sean opened like a rosebud during The Boys Next Door, years before we ever met?

Kristine: I say yes. I want to know why your eleven-year-old self found the movie so engaging.

Sean: I remember being really riveted and sickened by the moment when Roy chokes/shakes Patti D’Arbanville’s Angie to death. That scene has sort of haunted me for the rest of my life; it’s really the only specific image (besides Maxwell Caulfield with his shirt off) that stuck with me. But beyond that trauma, I couldn’t believe all the gay feelings that I felt for Roy. Which of course, rewatching the movie now, is super disturbing because he’s a monstrous psychopath. But what are you gonna tell an eleven-year old?

Kristine: I have things to say about that choking scene, eventually.

The Boys Next Door (5)

Inspiration for Death Proof? Or coincidence?

Sean: I was surprised that the movie itself is “about” gayness though, in as much as they go to a gay bar, there’s the Dwayne/“chicken hawk” moment (amazing), they have this direct encounter with faggotry, gaybash Chris in his living room, etc. I didn’t retain any memories of that.

Kristine: Not only all that, but what about the fact that Bo and Roy are a couple? And while Bo just worships Roy, it’s Roy who might be in love with Bo, right?

Sean: Yes. The barely repressed homolove between them was off the chain. I was also delighted by all the warrior women in the movie. Like those amazing bikini girls who assault Bo and Roy after they bonk that old lady on the head, or that fantastic security guard who fights back against the boys in the mall at the end of the movie.

Kristine: Yes. We know Quentin Tarantino loves to rip things off… I mean, he loves pastiche. Don’t you think the girls from Death Proof are totally taken from this movie? And of course Zoe Bell’s car hood scene, too?

Sean: Maybe? I don’t know about that.

Kristine: Definitely. There is no question, Sean. I will research this and prove my theory is true.

Sean: Huh. I wonder what Spheeris thinks of Tarantino.

Kristine: It’s interesting you should ask, because I think Spheeris as a filmmaker is able to do things that Tarantino is not. Like, #1 create genuine pathos and empathy, #2 successfully impart homophobia, racism, sexism into her characters without the movies themselves espousing those views. With Tarantino, I always have the uneasy feeling that sexist, homophobic and racist audiences are able to enjoy his movies and not “get” that he is being critical. Does that make sense?

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Water sports

Sean: Sure. The only thing that I didn’t dig about The Boys Next Door, though, was its didacticism. Like that opening voiceover/scrawl about how, “The serial killer could be anybody! Even…. the boys next door!” That didn’t work for me at all, and part of why is because it tries to make the film into some kind of serious social document, when it’s not. The movie is sort of just a raunchy after-school special. I actually love that about it, but….

Kristine: I also love the debauched after-school-special quality. Yeah, that opening was dumb. Especially because I thought it was clear that Bo and Roy weren’t the boys next door. They are total outsiders, and not “cool” outsiders who escape their small-minded suburban town and find likeminded souls in one of the subcultures of the big city (L.A.). They are still outsiders and totally don’t “get it” when they are in L.A., too. I guess you could make a point that “the boy next door” could also be an alienated sociopath like Roy, but no, that doesn’t work for me, either.

Sean: Yeah.

Kristine: Another thing about the after-school-special quality. I truly believe that Sheen’s performance is so effective and believable because he was actually 19 at the time. There is an authenticity and vulnerability there that just doesn’t happen when older actors play young, right? Maxwell Caulfield, who plays Roy, was 26 when this was made, and I’d argue that you can feel the difference. Which actually works for the movie because Bo is supposed to be the naïf. But like, remember Andrea Zuckerman the 37-year-old virgin from Beverly Hills, 90210?

Sean: Ha!

Kristine: Do you agree with me on actually teenaged actors vs. oldies playing teens?

Sean: I totally agree. Like how Molly Ringwold and Anthony Michael Hall are actual teens in The Breakfast Club and they are the best (well, Ally Sheedy’s pretty great too). I’d put this in the “teensploitation” subgenre, which started in the 1950s with movies like High School Confidential and Teenage Gang Debs, which were all about how unhinged and drug-addled and sexy and terrible teenagers were. But that’s considered an exploitation subgenre. Did The Boys Next Door feel like an exploitation movie to you? Like it was asking us to “get off” on the deviance of Roy and Bo?

Kristine: Hmm, interesting question, re: exploitation. I think that it feels like a teensploitation movie, but it really isn’t because Roy’s actions quickly enter the realm of being indefensible and meaningless.

Sean: Roy ripping his shirt off and parading about feels like exploitation, but the moments of violence are meant to shock and sicken us, not titillate us. Or maybe I’m being too generous.

Kristine: And because we see Bo being traumatized by Roy’s actions, and our sympathies turn solely to him. But it has exploitative trappings, like the intense eroticization of Roy’s body.

Sean: OMG, Roy with his shirt off.

Kristine: Exactly.

Sean: That freeze-frame ending of Bo being led off in handcuffs…. Hahahahaha! So 1980s message movie.

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RIMAs to the rescue

Kristine: That handcuff scene, oy vey. Such a message movie. But like the “boys next door” tagline you pointed out earlier, it felt like an aberration from the rest of the film. It’s not really a warning movie because what is it warning against? I mean if Bo and Roy did a bunch of drugs and then went on a crazy killspree, that would be a message movie. But this is all about random sociopathy. How Roy is sick and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Sean: I guess it could be a “message” to girls/women about the predators that are roaming around out there.

Kristine: That reminds me, Entertainment Weekly has this quote about the movie: “If John Hughes had ever made a dead-serious comedy about a heartless pair of sociopaths, that movie might have looked something like The Boys Next Door. It’s like a Hughes film crossed with In Cold Blood.”

Sean: Right on, that’s perfect. I love how Roy and Bo relate to all the kids in their hometown, because all the kids are actually sort of horrible. But in a believable way – they’re not bad people, they’re just unimaginative, boring people.

Kristine: Yes, true.

Sean: Bo and Roy are pretty loveable until they get to L.A. They’re even nice to the dog!

Kristine: You mean Bon Bon a.k.a. Boner the Barbarian? Well, Bo is nice to the dog. Roy is indifferent.

Sean: I love Boner the Barbarian a lot.

Kristine: I feel like Spheeris is saying that small-town life sucks, that suburbia sucks. The urban space is where it’s at. It’s only once the boys are in the urban environment that their unsuitability for society comes out, which is a departure because usually movies portray the city as the wild and amoral wasteland and portray wide-eyed suburban/rural visitors as morally right. So, I do feel like there’s a dig/critique aimed at suburbia in the movie.

Sean: And there’s the classic River’s Edge-style “brain dead dad in front of the tv” moment.

The Boys Next Door (2)

Rogue’s gallery of “boys”? Or monsters?

Kristine: Yes, for sure. That exact same trope is used in Suburbia. There are actually a lot of similarities between The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. When Bo says he wants to fuck Bonnie’s (the popular high school girl’s) brains out, and Roy responds with, “That wouldn’t take long,” there is almost identical dialogue in Suburbia: Skinner tells the suburban housewife who is slumming at the punk club, “I’d like to fuck your brains out but it doesn’t look like you have any.” Then he starts ripping her clothes off and the rest of the punk kids join in, stripping her naked and taunting and molesting her while she screams, terrified. Finally the club staff breaks it up and the singer from D.I., who is performing at the club, condemns the mob and tells them they are Neanderthals. Which of course reminds me of how Roy longs for the world to “go caveman.” Remember when Roy says, “Wouldn’t it be great if the government declared, like, an official Caveman Day? I mean, you could just knock girls over the head, drag ‘em back to your house, and completely drill their socks off. I mean, you could do anything: You could throw rocks at people, run around naked, take a dump in the middle of the street — just be totally prehistoric!” But of course when Roy does go caveman, it’s not awesome. It’s fucking terrifying.

Sean: Love the caveman stuff, like the speech you just quoted or naming the prissy little lapdog “Boner the Barbarian.” Though I do feel like it runs counter to that silly opening montage that tries to put Roy in the same league as like, Kenneth Bianchi or David Berkowitz. I feel like the caveman stuff makes the argument that Roy’s “sickness” is something that’s actually intrinsic to masculinity, and that his problem is developmental. He doesn’t possess the maturity or the socialization to move “beyond” the caveman phase of his development. But that’s not what ailed the list of serial killers at the start of the movie. Like, is Spheeris suggesting that Henry Lee Lucas was just a caveman at heart? That opening montage just seems like a sloppily pieced-together bit of pop psychology to “explain” Roy’s story. It would be more effective without it, for me.

Kristine: Yes, I’d agree with that. I think Bo is just a victim of small town small minds and/or suburbia conformity. In the urban space, he finds girls who don’t reject him. He could make a life in L.A. and not be a misogynistic creep, right? But Roy is another animal completely. I think it’s interesting that Spheeris makes these movies about outsider culture, but at the end of the day she seems to be arguing that we need society and social rules and mores and values to keep us safe.

Sean: Great point. I totally agree. Your description of the punk club scene in Suburbia - the guy on the mic telling the crowd they’re Neanderthals… Just like the amazon bikini babes assaulting Bo and Roy in this movie. Spheeris, in both cases, invents some kind of Greek chorus to step in and chant, “No this is not cool” at the out-of-control young men.

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Warhol meets L.A. trash

Kristine: Yes, exactly! And this is where I think it is important that Spheeris is a female director.

Sean: I agree

Kristine: So, do you know what movie I was reminded of during the Patti D’Arbanville scene?

Sean: Which?

Kristine: Larry Clark’s Bully, a movie I dislike even though it did affect me. The scene I was most upset by in that movie is when Brad Renfro is having sex with his girlfriend and Nick Stahl suddenly bursts into the room, throws her off Renfro, and starts beating Renfro up. Then he rapes the girlfriend. It reminds me of Roy, because there are overtones that Stahl is closeted and in love with Renfro (just like Roy/Bo). But also Stahl’s control over Renfro and Stahl’s distain for women reminds me of the Bo/Roy dynamic. Remember that horrible thing Roy says to Bo after he breaks Angie’s neck? Wasn’t it something like, “You fucked THAT?!”

Sean:  I was going to ask, what do we make of the movie’s conflation of Roy’s psychopathy with his repressed homosexuality? I’m not sure I love that trope.

Kristine: Yeah…

Sean: Even if its meant as a critique. It’s still like, being gay can make you a twisted psycho. There’s something I don’t like about it.

Kristine: I mean… yeah. It’s a problem. It’s my one potential problem with Spheeris. Especially when Bo “redeems” himself at the end of the movie by shooting Roy, and the thing that makes him do so is his horror at Roy killing Bo’s hetero love interest. It’s like the act of hetero love made Bo have a conscience.

Sean: So on the one hand its good that Bo rejects misogyny and is repulsed by it. But gross that gayboys have to be psycho-misogynists. I am super curious if Spheeris told Max Caulfield, “Your character wants to fuck Bo.”

Kristine: I say yes.

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The face that launched a thousand…. boners

Sean: I want it confirmed.

Kristine: We need to discuss how the other gay characters in the film are depicted, I think.

Sean: “Chicken hawk!” I found the portrayal of the gays to be realistic and sympathetic, actually. I think Chris just seems like a regular urban gay guy who thinks he won the fucking lottery.

Kristine: I have a somewhat different read.

Sean: Tell me.

Kristine: I thought there was a whiff of victim-blaming with Chris’s murder, like the movie suggests that he’s a predator going after these kids. He knows they are underage, remember. I felt like he was a cautionary tale of sorts about what happens to gays who bring “rough trade” home and are too blinded by lust to realize it’s a bad scene. I thought the interaction between his friend and the police was authentic and sympathetic, though.

Sean: Right, I guess. I don’t know. The ‘older guys and younger guys hook up’ thing is just like, a part of gay culture. I was like, ‘Oh, Spheeris gets that.’ It’s not like Roy and Bo are 14-year-old boys. Am I being a shocking pedo? They’re like, age of consent, as far as I’m concerned.

Kristine: Ha! No, I get that. I am not as confident that Spheeris gets that. I think the gays might be the one subculture she doesn’t totally get. Part of my reason for thinking that is because in Suburbia one of the kids runs away because his dad is a super fey gay who moves in his lover and openly has sex with him in the house. It’s not a very sympathetic portrayal, at all. I’ve always read it as gay = perverse.

Sean: Hmmm, you’re evidence from the earlier movie does damn Spheeris a bit. But the cop interrogation scene is definitely played for, “Homophobes are ugly dicks.” When he says things like “buttslammer bar” and “the dead fag” and then mocks Dwayne openly even as he’s sitting there grieving for Chris. Det. Hanley’s disgusted reaction to his colleague’s homophobia is what the movie thinks is the morally right frame of mind, I’d say.

Kristine: It’s an open question for me.

Sean: Let’s leave it there.

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Bo finally whips it out

Kristine: But wait, I do have one last piece of possible evidence. When Bo is at Chris’s apartment playing on the computer and Chris is rubbing his shoulders and coming onto him, it is very clear that Bo is uncomfortable and not into it. I think the movie places the audience’s sympathy with Bo, not Chris, even though it is perfectly reasonable for Chris to give it a shot since they did go back to his apartment. Do you agree?

Sean: Um….

Kristine: Then Roy “saves” Bo from the unwanted advances.

Sean: But it’s more like Bo and Roy are being Lolitas, right? Openly tempting Chris, making him think he’s going to get laid? I mean, I get what you’re saying…

Kristine: I don’t think Bo is at all in on it.

Sean: I disagree. When Roy strips his shirt off? Bo gets it. And he is not like, “Dude, I’m leaving.”

Kristine: True. Good point.

Sean: But that’s the whole movie. Bo giving his passive consent. Bein’ a big ol’ bottom…

Kristine: Yes!

Sean: …And then finally whipping it out (the gun) at the end and “manning up.”

Kristine: Until hetero lovemaking shakes him out of his apathy.

Sean: I think though, if you are going to read the gay pickup that way, then it is fair to apply the same logic to Patti D’Arbanville’s Angie. That the audience is asked to see her as a slut who “gets what she had coming.”

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The nozzle of phallic foreshadowing

Kristine: Right, but we don’t.

Sean: She also picks up two underage guys, knowing they’re underage.

Kristine: Yes, but Bo is into it. Ugh, I hate that I am really leaning towards the troubling conclusion that that Spheeris despicts hetero = good & moral / gay = sick & amoral. Because I love Spheeris.

Sean: I don’t think it’s as black and white as that, but it might lean uncomfortably in that direction. I do think she’s a gay ally in this movie enough (the homophobic cop being put in his place) to undercut some of the weirdness, but not all of it.

Kristine: But you’re right, Angie behaves exactly like Chris, and yet it is depicted with a different tone. I am not saying Chris’s murder is depicted as justified or not horrific… but it is not as horrific as Angie’s murder, right? Roy’s violent acts increase in horror, the denouement is his murder of the hetero dreamgirl and her suitor in their car. That’s what wakes Bo up and makes him act. I don’t think Spheeris is anti-gay, not at all. But I do think that there are some problematic portrayals in some of her movies. Hey, maybe she evolved. This was the mid-‘80s.

Sean: Yes. Are there any other key scenes we neglected?

Kristine: I don’t think so… Other than Max Caulfield lying on the bed in the hotel room and being hot as fuck.

Sean: Max Caulfield = the catalyst for my queer sexuality.

Kristine: I can totally see that. I tried to hunt down Warhol’s interview of him for Interview magazine, but no luck. I can totally see Andy just completely freaking out over him. So, do you think that Max Caulfield and (his real-life wife) Juliet Mills were the Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness of their time? Do you think he is gay and she is a beard?

Sean: I don’t know anything about Jackman’s gay rumors. He’s supposed to be a closet case?

Kristine: Yes!

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Roughed up and ready to party

Sean: I don’t like that, just because he’s a song-n-dance man? That’s homophobic. Like, “He can’t be Wolverine and sing a showtune unless he sucks cock”?

Kristine: That, and because he is considered so hot and his (lovely and cool-seeming) wife is age-appropriate/possibly older, and is not a “10″ by Hollywood standards. It’s homophobic and misogynistic.

Sean: I think that is literally the equivalent of someone in the 1970s being like, “That girl has a short haircut so she is obviously a dyke.” I like Hugh Jackman even more knowing he has a nice, age-appropriate wife who isn’t some piece of arm candy.

Kristine: I agree, it’s fucked. When did you realize this movie was the work of Ms. Spheeris?

Sean: When I researched it before we watched it together.

Kristine: Was your mind blown?

Sean: I was surprised and excited.

Kristine: I feel like the gay question makes it seem like I liked this film less than I did. I think it’s well made and pretty great.

Sean: I really enjoyed the hell out of it. And would add it to my list of essential ‘80s teen movies.

Kristine: Me, too. Essential viewing.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Flawed but essential AND Provocative and problematic AND After-school special realness AND More feminist than you’d think

The Freak’s Rating: This film IS America AND More feminist than you’d think AND This movie shaped my brain for all time AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good AND Queerer than you’d think

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Tickleholes

One thought on “Movie Discussion: Penelope Spheeris’ The Boys Next Door (1985)

  1. Pingback: Movie Discussion: Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) | Girl Meets Freak

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