Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Carnival of Blood Blogathon: Review - The New Kids

Howdy folks. This is my contribution to In It For The Kills' Carnival of Blood blogathon. When you get done reading it, click on that nifty little banner down there and go check out what other midway madness they have going on. Hurry, Hurry, Hurry ladies and gentlemen! Step right up! The show is about to begin...

I’ve been hoodwinked. I’ve been hornswaggled. I’ve even been bamboozled. I imagine that I feel the same way a lot of theatergoers in 1985 felt. Take a look at that poster. “A new ticket to terror from the director of Friday the 13th” sure screams horror flick to me. The kids look scared. The creepy mannequin faces are, well, creepy. The art looks like a horror flick. It’s directed by Sean Cunningham. It features some great 80’s horror actors. I went into it expecting horror. What did I get? An 80’s teen mixture of The Karate Kid and Straw Dogs. It’s basically a typical “kid stands up to a bully” story with a bit of a meaner side. That’s not to say it’s bad necessarily, but a little truth in advertising would be nice!

Loren and Abby are teenagers who suddenly find themselves orphaned. They go to Florida to live with their Uncle Charlie, who has bought a run down carnival. As they fix up “Santa’s Funland,” start at their new school, and try to acclimate to their new lives, Abby catches the eye of a group of lowlife rednecks led by Eddie Dutra, a local drug dealer. After she spurns his advances, they begin harassing her. Her brother comes to her defense, and kicks off an escalating game of “top this.” The rednecks vandalize the carnival, so Loren assaults Dutra. Loren beats up a couple of the rednecks, so they all jump him. Finally, it gets to the point where Loren and Uncle Charlie are taken captive, and Loren must make a final stand in a fight to the death among the rides and popcorn stands.

This movie shines in the acting department. The flick really belongs to two performers. Lori Loughlin as Abby is outstanding. This was about three years before she would tie the knot with Uncle Jesse and have twins. I know you get the reference, don’t try to deny it. Here, she is the perfect balance between tough and vulnerable. She comes across as so innocent and “all American girl next door” that when she’s put in peril, you really feel for her. James Spader is the other standout. Even at this early stage in his career, he was proving to be a master of his craft. His performance as Dutra is pure malice, arrogance, and evil. How his character is never brought up in discussions of great film villains is a mystery to me. The performances are top notch all across the board though. In fact, there’s really not a weak link to be found. Shannon Presby is great as Loren, our hero. The rednecks are a sleazy and detestable bunch, particularly John Philbin (Return of the Living Dead) as Gid. Great 80’s character actor Eddie Jones (CHUD, Q the Winged Serpent, Tales From the Darkside) is wonderful as sweet, broke, and hapless Uncle Charlie. This movie also has one thing that can elevate any flick…gratuitous Tom Atkins! He is only in the movie for the fist five minutes as the father, but he’s always a welcome addition. Have I mentioned that I love me some Tom Atkins?

Aside from the acting though, this movie is a big missed opportunity. What could have been a harrowing fight for survival just doesn’t have the intensity to pull it off. I think there are three factors that kept this movie from being a classic. One is the lukewarm violence. Yes, I’m a jaded man and a rabid gorehound, so I’m always up for more hardcore violence and explicit mayhem, but this didn’t need to be a straight up horror flick. I don’t think it would have worked on that level. What it should have been was a gritty drama. It needed an edge; something along the lines of Straw Dogs, Rolling Thunder, or Deliverance. There are a few deaths, but they’re too tame. There’s even a decapitation by roller coaster that is completely bloodless. In fact, the only blood in the movie is either from an animal or a busted lip. The concluding shotgun attack on the midway has all the intensity of a shootout on The A-Team; hundreds of rounds and no bodily harm. The fact that the violence is so sanitized keeps it from having the down and dirty realism that could have made the siblings struggle much more riveting and effective. That said, Dutra’s demise was actually pretty satisfying.

When I was ranting about that during the closing credits, my friend said “Well, maybe that’s what passed for horror (implying violence) in 1985.” I’m pretty sure she just said that so she could laugh at me going off on another rant. She likes to bait me like that. Anyway, let’s look at some of the other movies that came out in 1985, shall we? We have Return of the Living Dead, Re-animator, Demons, Day of the Dead, Rambo 2, Friday the 13th 5, Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Phenomena, and Commando just to name a few. Do I need to keep going? My point is that movies had balls, violent balls at that, in 1985, so the time of its release is not an excuse.

Second, they do very little with the great carnival set. This could have been creepy as hell, or at least atmospheric. The camera could have played over the still, quiet rides and various mannequin figures to create a great ambiance. Have you ever been in one of those cheap roadside carnivals after everything’s shut down? The quiet in such a typically loud place is eerie and unsettling. If this had been played up, it would have contrasted strongly with the loud and brightly lit high school scenes and made it a much more interesting backdrop for the climactic struggle. Hell, the carnival, handled properly, could have almost been a character itself. There was a hall of mirrors scene that barely lasted a minute, but so little was done with it that it didn’t amount to anything. Come to think of it, there’s really no visual style in this movie at all. There are a couple of fleeting moments that are vintage Sean Cunningham, like close-ups on the feet of someone lurking or slow creeping POV shots of an unsuspecting victim. For the most part though, it’s a very straightforward shooting style light on the creativity.

The third thing is the music. It doesn’t get any cheesier or more stereotypically 80’s than the soundtrack to this movie. It does get a slight pass due to it being 1985. It was the kind of music you heard in every 80’s flick. That’s the problem. It all sounds like everything else. All of the instrumental score sounds like it should be playing under the opening credits of a second rate Falcon Crest or Dynasty. All of the actual songs either sound like the Growing Pains theme or a ripoff of “You’re the Best Around” from Karate Kid. Admit it; you started humming it as soon as I said the title, didn’t you? Relax, it’s almost impossible not to. While the soundtrack may be a product of its times, Sean Cunningham had already shown a knack for choosing great music to create a mood in his movies. Remember that killer Harry Manfredini score from Friday the 13th? Why didn’t he find something as evocative for this? The generic soundtrack helps suck any tension or power out of the film.

This flick could have and should have been a classic, especially with the phenomenal acting. It could have been a truly moving nail biter of a flick. Sean Cunningham is no stranger to making gritty, realistic, and violent but emotionally engrossing flicks. He did produce Last House on the Left after all. With The New Kids though, he had an unfortunate lapse into good taste and failed to pull the trigger. If the danger had seemed more severe and the conflict more agonizing, the audience would have truly cared deeply about the struggle Loren and Abby were facing. A couple of scenes do hint at the greatness that could have been. In my personal favorite, one of Dutra’s thugs is holding Abby. Dutra, grinning wickedly as only Spader can, implies that he is about to rape her. His hands still covered in the chicken blood he was smearing on Uncle Charlie, he removes her pants. As Abby’s heartbreakingly wholesome face registers abject terror, he kneels and begins to slowly and sensually wipe blood on her virginal white panties. It is an incredibly intense scene, and the most compelling visual of the film. I know I’ve used the word intensity a lot in this review, but that is the single thing that would have made the most difference; intensity. Had the rest of the film gone balls to the wall like this scene did, this flick would have been a masterpiece.

I know I’ve come down hard on this flick. Don’t get me wrong; I do love cheesy 80’s flicks. As far as they go, this is a good one. I just hate to see a good story and great acting squandered. It is an entertaining enough movie, but I think it had the potential to be so much more. A lot of people do love it though, and it is a bit of an under-the-radar cult classic. Watch it for what it is. It’s a very enjoyable ride if you know what to expect. That’s why they shouldn’t have marketed it as horror. I bet a lot of people who bought tickets based on that poster back in the mid 80’s had the same reaction that I did watching The New Kids. One last thing, I couldn’t think of where else to bring it up, but I loved that little ten year old redneck kid dropping F bombs. He was awesome! One severed thumb up. Nathan says don’t go in expecting straight up horror like I did, but when you’re in the mood for a good retro teen action romp with a little hint of horror flavor, check this one out.

1 comment:

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