1980's, Beavis and Butthead, Boner the Barbarian, celebrities, Charlie Harper, Charlie Sheen, Christopher McDonald, cinema, Film, film reviews, Gregg Araki, high school grads, killing spree, Los Angeles, Martin Sheen, Maxwell Caulfield, mental illness, Movies, Penelope Spheeris, road movie, road trips, serial killers, spree killers, The Boys Next Door, The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World, William Friedkin
To paraphrase the late, great Rick James: celebrity is a helluva drug. The whirlwind of celebrity crash-and-burn has claimed many formerly good actors (Anyone remember the time when Gary Busey wasn’t the punchline to a joke? As hard as it may be to believe, there once was such a time.) and will probably continue to grind up performers until the sun finally winks out of existence. One of the biggest casualties? The current wild-man/former actor known as Charlie Sheen.
Once upon a time, way before “winning,” “warlocks” and “Denise Richards,” Sheen was a promising young actor who seemed poised to follow in his father’s footsteps. Young Sheen appeared in a string of successful films, including Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Young Guns (1988), Eight Men Out (1988), Major League (1989), The Rookie (1990), Hot Shots! (1991) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993). David Twohy’s above-average alien-encounter flick The Arrival (1996) would be Sheen’s last “big” role before he made the move to TV, doing two years as Michael J. Fox’s replacement in Spin City before playing the part of Charlie Harper on Two and a Half Men for the next eight years.
Somewhere in that timeline, Sheen made the decision to put his acting on the back burner and focus, instead, on partying, drug use and general debauchery aka “The Robert Downey Jr. Plan.” As such, Sheen had already become something of a public joke before his very public meltdown and removal from his hit TV series made him a complete joke. Since that time, Charlie Sheen has existed as a sort-of meta-celebrity, an actor who only plays himself (A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III) and who seems to only be famous for being famous and saying outrageous (although increasingly less so) things.
Back at the beginning of his career, however, absolutely anything seemed possible. As the son of similarly hard-charging Martin Sheen, Charlie seemed to be a natural fit to follow in his dad’s footsteps (he even had a walk-on in Martin’s Apocalypse Now). The Boys Next Door, only Charlie’s second starring role, isn’t a great film but it is an interesting one and a pretty quaint look back into a time when Sheen was known more for his acting then his antics.
The film opens with sobering talking-head footage about serial killers, the consensus being that they usually end up being people who know and interact with on a regular basis, seemingly normal people who end up being less than human. We then cut to Roy (Maxwell Caulfield) and Bo (Sheen), a couple of knuckle-headed, prank-loving, high-school graduates acting like complete pains in the asses. They irritate their peers, giggle like flesh-and-blood versions of Beavis and Butthead, draw dirty pictures in class and crash pool parties that they’re not invited to. Once they appear to have exhausted their supply of home-town fun, the meat-heads steal a classmate’s dog, re-name it “Boner the Barbarian,” and hit the road for L.A. At this point, the film seems like any number of schlocky, ’80s teen road-movies, albeit with that aforementioned Beavis and Butthead vibe. Soon, however, the film will attempt to pull the rug from underneath our feet and will (to varying degrees) succeed.
As the two friends (and Boner the Barbarian) drive to Los Angeles, Roy quickly reveals himself to be a complete psychopath, a severely damaged individual who wants to join the army just so that he can kill something. As they travel about, Roy’s rage continues to bubble to the surface and, before long, he’s begun to violently lash out at everyone they come across: a gas-station attendant is beaten senseless…an old lady is hit in the head with a bottle. Before you know it, Roy is killing people and Bo (distinctly non-homicidal but so ineffectual as to become an unwitting accomplish) is “helplessly” along for the ride. Once the police get involved, the film becomes a headlong rush to a pretty inevitable fate: if you’ve seen one “fugitives on the run” film, you’ve probably seen at least 50% of them.
In certain ways, The Boys Next Door is an extremely strange film and at least some of the credit for this must be due to director Penelope Spheeris. Fans of transgressive ’80s cinema will recognize Spheeris from both 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization (still one of the very best documentaries/looks into the burgeoning 1980’s U.S. hardcore scene) and Suburbia (1983), a look into disaffected youth that would seem to directly presage Gregg Araki’s nihilistic ’90s films. On the flip side, more modern sensibilities may recall that Spheeris also directed the original Wayne’s World (1992) before disappearing down the rabbit-hole of increasingly crass comedies and remakes: The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), The Little Rascals (1994), Black Sheep (1996), and Senseless (1998) all seemed to put the fork into a career that started out fairly interesting before sputtering out.
It’s definitely the “pre-PG13” Spheeris that we get in The Boys Next Door, however, which certainly accounts for much of the film’s psuedo-Repo Man look and vibe. At times, especially once Roy goes batshit, the film also reminded me of William Friedkin’s strange spree-killer/courtroom-drama Rampage (1988). Since Spheeris’ film preceded Friedkin’s by several years, it’s rather tempting for me to think that she might have had a little influence on his (decidedly) better film but I’m not sure if he would have been paying attention: Friedkin would have been working on To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) by that time.
One influence that can be seen in The Boys Next Door, however, is a bit of future influence: you can actually see shades of Wayne’s World, as bizarre as that may sound, in much of the film. Whether it’s in scenes like the goofy ones where our two “protagonists” drive around the city and gawk at “punk-rockers” or the real head-scratcher where Roy and Bo are chased by an angry mob of bikini-clad women after pelting an old lady in the head with a bottle, the film definitely recalls (at least in feel, if not tone) the antics of Wayne and Garth…minus all of the killing, of course.
Despite its frantic pace and Looney Tunes-sense of energy, The Boys Next Door still manages to run out of gas before its (inevitable) conclusion. After several scenes that managed to surprise, if not exactly shock, the conclusion is just about as lazy as it gets: a cheesy butt-rock guitar solo wails as Roy and Bo flee, first by car, then on foot, with the police in hot pursuit. The whole footchase essentially consists of anonymous shots of Roy and Bo running down generic hallways inter-cut with other anonymous shots of cops running down equally generic hallways. Between the frenetic noodling and the endlessly repetitive hallways, the finale feels like being stuck in purgatory, which may have been Spheeris’ intent all along.
As far as craft goes, The Boys Next Door holds together fairly well but certainly is nothing to write home about. Sheen is very good, if constantly bemused, as the “saner” of the two friends, while Caulfield pours his all into a role that frequently feels like a bone-headed update of that other Caulfield, the one who sulked through Catcher in the Rye. There’s a pretty hilarious (albeit unintentionally so) performance by a very young Christopher McDonald as a square, weepy cop. Older viewers will probably remember McDonald from any number of character turns over the past 30+ years but younger viewers will almost certainly remember him as Shooter McGavin, Happy Gilmour’s arch-enemy in the eponymous film. It’s a real hoot to see McDonald playing such a simpering, “nice guy” character, even if he doesn’t get much to actually do in the film. While the acting is decent, much of the film’s look and sound is strictly of the era, including a ridiculously clichéd and rather annoying score. As mentioned, the film frequently seems to be trying to mimic the look and feel of Repo Man (1984) but without a tenth of writer/director Alex Cox’s invention or gritty eye for absurdity.
As it stands, The Boys Next Door is a pretty-decent example of the “serial killer road trip” sub-genre but is, ultimately, pretty light-weight and forgettable, bar a few disturbing scenes (the one where Roy kills the girl that Bo is having sex with is a real corker). One big plus? The film has the temerity to introduce a dog but then never bothers to kill it: what were the filmmakers thinking? Any film that lets Boner the Barbarian live to rampage anew is just okay enough to deserve a look, in my book. Plus, you know, that whole Charlie Sheen thing. Winning, indeed!