The New Kids Review
Forty years-ago this summer independent filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham struck box office gold with low-rent slasher Friday 13th, which he both produced and directed. I doubt that never in his wildest dreams did Cunningham expect the film to become such a successful long-running franchise, not that he was involved with many of the sequels, instead trying his hand at various other genres. You may struggle to recall any other films that had Cunningham’s involvement, besides his much earlier production credit on Wes Craven’s infamous Last House on the Left (1972). The offers didn’t exactly come rolling in straightaway so, understandably, Cunningham jumped at the chance when major studio Columbia offered him the chance to make another shocker, on the proviso that it had to be done quickly and with very little money.
With a screenplay hastily written by Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie), the resulting film was released in the US as The New Kids (1985). However, it didn't arrive in the UK until some until 3 years later, heading straight to video and retitled Striking Back – perhaps a more accurate indication of what the film is about. Anyone expecting gore galore in a similar vein to the director’s earlier hit would be in for a disappointment, as this is more of a revenge thriller than a slasher. One surprising name attached to this low-budget feature is Barbara De Fina, getting an early credit in her career as associate producer – she would later become the talented producer behind most of Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed movies.
The New Kids opens with young Loren (Shannon Presby) and Abby (Lori Loughlin) living on a military base with their heroic father, Colonel “Mac” MacWilliams, who teaches them the virtues of keeping fit and standing tall. To demonstrate this, we are treated to a cheesy training montage complete with obligatory sweaty head bands and slo-mo running accompanied to some 80s soft rock. Just in case you did not truly savour this “gotta be strong” sequence the first time around, it gets reprised later in the film. Mac is played by John Carpenter regular Tom Atkins, who is saddled here with a couple of very dubious lines of dialogue, before his character meets a tragic end.
The orphaned teens find themselves packed off to go and live with kindly Uncle Charlie (nicely played by Eddie Jones) in a small Florida town. He has fallen on hard times, with the family’s small-scale amusement park and petting zoo now closed and in a state of disrepair. Luckily, Loren and Abby prove handy to have around, willing to get the place spruced up and back in business. Ever the optimist, struggling Charlie eloquently reassures his wife “don’t worry, we will soon be farting through silk”. Nice.
While the siblings quickly make new friends – look out for a fresh-faced Eric Stoltz in a minor role, Abby starts to get unwanted attention from local creep Dutra (James Spader) and his trio of repugnant followers. She continually spurns his crude advances, yet Dutra is defiantly not going to give up - and Loren’s intervention only antagonises the situation further. Much of the success of this type of movie rests on the strength of its antagonist, and in this respect the film scores by casting Spader. With his bleached blond barnet, cocky swagger and menacing glare, the young star seems to be having fun in this memorable early role playing a psychopath. It does help to make amends for the blandness of the two leads – Presby is especially miscast and not totally convincing.
Their troubles escalate rapidly from the point when Uncle Charlie’s prized sixties Cadillac is maliciously scratched by the gang, leading to progressively more nasty reprisals. Director Cunningham does manage to show some restraint, with the film less explicitly violent compared to other examples of the gang revenge genre released around that time – Class of 1984 and Savage Streets spring to mind. Nevertheless, there are moments that may still make you recoil, one involving lighter fluid and another with an aggressive Pit Bull.
Cunningham keeps the pace moving along briskly, aided by a classy Lalo Schifrin score, managing to build a modicum of suspense and provide a few effective sequences. Ultimately he doesn't show quite enough flair to lift this above a strictly run-of-the-mill B-movie. In more proficient hands that dilapidated fun park had bags of potential, with its creepy trappings, yet the setting is not used to its full potential. Watch the film for Spader, who makes this considerably more entertaining than it could have been.
The New Kids makes its UK debut on a limited edition Blu-ray from 101 Films, as part of their premium Black Label range (no.14 in the series). The disc appears to be region “B” locked.
The film has never been available on DVD in the UK, so was last released on VHS some 32 years ago under the title Striking Back. That version carried an “18” certificate and suffered three cuts by the BBFC totalling 54 seconds. For this new digital release, the film has been downgraded to a “15”, with all previous cuts waived.
This new HD release is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1, with an image that is suitably detailed and free from any noticeable defects.
The audio offers a 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix, with does a solid enough job, ensuring that dialogue is distinct throughout and sound FX are suitably punchy when required. English subtitles have been included.
This is where the new UK release from 101 Films improves considerably over the poor US edition from budget label Mill Creek Entertainment, which was barebones. There are a couple of brand-new interviews, conducted by Jim Kunz:
A Trip Down Santa Claus Lane (16:27) – affable screenwriter Stephen Gyllenhaal reveals that he took the job as he had two young children at the time and needed the money. He describes Spader as being a true gentleman towards his daughter Maggie, when the two stars appeared together in the film Secretary (2002).
The New Kid on The Lot (17:39) – director Sean S. Cunningham talks about the film, including developing the script on a tight time scale, the casting process – he describes Spader as “intense” – and building the fun park from scratch. There are some interesting anecdotes, such as a scene where Spader accidentally knocked out lead actor Presby.
Little is mentioned in these interviews of star Loughlin’s much publicised arrest in 2019 for her role in a college admissions bribery scandal.
An entertaining commentary track with critics Sean Hogan and Jasper Sharp, providing plenty of background information. If you ever wondered what happened to star Presby, we are told he quit acting to become a successful lawyer.
A great 28-page collector’s booklet (first pressing only), offers an array of colour stills, together with new writing by Jon Towlson and Barry Forshaw.
The New Kids (Limited Edition) Blu-ray is released courtesy of 101 Films on June 29th