Roy (Maxwell Caulfield, “Empire Records”) and Bo (Charlie Sheen, “Platoon”) seem like ordinary boys. They go to high school, drink booze, play pranks on their teachers and dread the burden of post-graduation life, including having to work in the local factory. But beneath their wholesome facades are two deeply disturbed sociopaths waiting to cut loose. Roy is an unhinged maniac constantly on the verge of boiling over into violent rage. Bo is his unquestioning follower.
“The Boys Next Door” is essentially a day in the life of these two young loose cannons, who take a road trip to Los Angeles. one night and soon find themselves the targets of a city-wide manhunt when their joyride turns into a murder spree.
It’s a difficult film to watch at times. In the wake of recent school shootings like the 2007 spree at Virginia Tech, it’s hard to imagine a film like this being received with open arms by contemporary mainstream critics. Even for a film made in 1985, it’s remarkably subversive. While most moviegoers in 1985 were being spoon-fed patriotic fluff like “Red Dawn” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” “The Boys Next Door” dared to show the angrier side of Reagan-era America.
Admittedly, the film is recommended more as a curiosity than it is as a genuine diamond in the rough. Though much of the film is gut-wrenching, the problem is really that some of the scenes, especially early on, would feel more at home in a John Hughes comedy. For most of its running time “The Boys Next Door” does an awkward balancing act between harebrained drive-in-style fun and a more serious character study of two alienated loners. It’s like “Badlands” for the “Facts of Life” set.
And yet, while the film is flawed, it still manages to be a powerful — and memorably vicious — look at a troubling phenomenon. What makes it so effective is that it neither demonizes nor idealizes its protagonists. It merely records them, drawing viewers into its story with a deceptively innocuous first act before smashing their preconceptions to pieces with moment after moment of cold, casual brutality. There are scenes here that are enough to leave modern audiences rattled, even though there’s no gore. And all the while the violence on display is punctuated by the disturbingly nonchalant expressions of the two boys, who react to the escalating carnage with an unsettling lack of concern.
The highlights of the film are undoubtedly the performances from Caulfield and Sheen. Caulfield is especially impressive: a British pretty boy whose career was already on the path toward soap opera hell after his debut in the infamous “Grease 2” (1982), he’s truly unforgettable here. As Bo, Sheen has less to do but plays off Caulfield marvelously. Together, they convincingly make for the scariest kind of monster: the kind you could mistakenly take home to your mother.
“The Boys Next Door” was directed by Penelope Spheeris, a minor director who found her niche making films about the troubled youth in America in the early ’80s, beginning with her most notable film, the punk documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981). She followed that film with “Suburbia” (1984), and, along with “The Boys,” these films make for a startlingly savage attack on the sort of conservative sentiment and phony sitcom wholesomeness that pervaded much of American filmmaking during that time.
At its best, “The Boys Next Door” is a gritty and disturbing eye-opener that rips apart the veneer of seemingly innocent and normal youths. At its worst, it’s a cheesy, occasionally even insensitive take on a serious topic. Whatever the case, it remains an essential precursor to more renowned films like “River’s Edge” (1986) — films that dare to explore the brutality of everyday American life.