Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled The kids arent all right: 17 scare films about the teen menace

1. thirteen (2003)

Like the other films on this list, the hysterical drama thirteen carries the implicit message, "Parents, do you know what your kids are doing right now?" Working from a script written by then-13-year-old Nikki Reed, Catherine Hardwicke answers the question in many alarmist ways, such as "They're huffing from aerosol cans and punching each other in the face" and "They're on the slippery slope from Barbies to blowjobs." It's a bracing reality for many parents to discover that their adolescents' lives aren't all sock-hops and ice-cream socials, and that peer pressure and raging hormones, combined with a child's decision-making deficiencies, can make for a toxic brew. But thirteen goes way over the top: One minute, a teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood) is ensconced in teddy bears and pink, the next she's shoplifting, using hardcore drugs, inviting older boys through her bedroom window, and slashing her arms with razor blades and scissors. Oh, kids these days: They grow up so fast.

2-4. Kids (1995), Bully (2001), Wassup Rockers (2005)

Director Larry Clark is a strange case; he's obsessed with the rituals (and bodies) of teenage skate punks and outcasts, and he identifies with them strongly, yet he makes films about them that might be construed as conservative, even reactionary. Though Clark doesn't impose a moral point of view, what to make of the parentless little cretins in Kids, including an HIV-positive skater who's on a mission with his buddy to deflower as many virgins as New York City offers them? Or how about the amoral mouth-breathers in Bully, who stupidly conspire to murder their friend and then spill the beans to a random waitress at the local Pizza Hut? Clark would never admit it, but his movies (Kids especially) are the Moral Majority's worst vision of America's youth; if his films weren't also so explicit, they'd probably find some unexpected supporters. The impression left by Kids, Bully, and his last feature, the affably dumb L.A. skate odyssey Wassup Rockers, is that teenagers are out there having unprotected, STD-laden sex, using drugs, murdering their buddies in cold blood, having run-ins with the law and Janice Dickinson, and practicing some of the sloppiest French-kissing techniques this side of a basset hound.

5. Reefer Madness (1936)

In this classic dope-will-make-you-crazy scare flick, it's really the devil weed that everyone is afraid of, and not so much the teenagers who are duped into taking it by a bunch of bland-looking middle-management types. Still, the teens (who, as in many movies of this sort, look like they're on the wrong side of their 30th birthdays) are awfully quick to pony up their soda-fountain money for "marihuana," and one dose is all it takes before they're dancing around lasciviously, abusing their parents' pianos, and engaging in premarital sex and/or axe murder. Unfortunately for America, the movie did a pretty lousy job of convincing teenagers to stay away from that "certain habit" gained "through association with certain undesirable people," and it's a safe bet that the ratio of people who watched Reefer Madness in a theater with serious intentions to those who rented it on video so they could get baked and laugh at it is about 1:100.

6. The Blackboard Jungle (1955)

For the majority of a child's school-going life, teachers have the obvious upper hand. They're bigger and smarter, and they carry detention slips by the fistful. But what happens when children grow big enough to pose a physical threat to their authority figures? And what happens when they wise up and realize that no one in their high school can make them do anything they don't want to do? Richard Brooks' film of Evan Hunter's pulp novel The Blackboard Jungle answers those questions thusly: anarchy reigns, and teachers aren't safe from their students even after they clock out and head home.

7. Hardcore (1979)

Given that writer-director Paul Schrader came from a strict religious upbringing and went on to make movies steeped in sex and violence, it's only natural that he'd imagine the same fate—albeit more extreme—for one of his own characters. In Hardcore, George C. Scott plays a devout Midwesterner whose daughter runs away on a church group trip to Los Angeles, and turns up in an especially vile porno loop that Scott's private investigator tracks down for him. ("Turn it off!" Scott sobs repeatedly when he sees the film.) Determined to bring his little girl back, Scott heads to L.A. and submerges himself in the demimonde of massage parlors and smut dealers, discovering the truth about all the little lost lambs who head to Hollywood to be slaughtered.

8. The Wild One (1953)

Most parents feel fairly confident that their own children know enough to do the right thing; it's those other kids who are worrisome. In The Wild One, Marlon Brando rolls into a small town with his Black Rebels Motorcycle Club and proceeds to disrupt the day-to-day with his casual cool. As played by Brando, the biker is more seductive and exciting than anything going on in Nowheresville, and that's exactly the problem: What good are all those traditional values we drill into our youngsters if some handsome stranger can come along and just flout them?

9. Susan Slept Here (1954)

A big part of adults' collective fear of teenagers has to do with the young ones' emerging sexuality; if those adults are honest with themselves, they'll admit that they're afraid of teenagers having sex with them, not just with each other. (Which leads to statutory rape charges, ruined marriages, registry on certain un-prestigious national databases, etc.) In Frank Tashlin's colorful, semi-musical adaptation of Alex Gottlieb's play Susan Slept Here, Dick Powell plays a screenwriter researching juvenile delinquency by hosting wayward 17-year-old Debbie Reynolds over the Christmas holiday. His panic that his kindness will be misconstrued as a sexual come-on culminates in a far-out dream sequence in which Reynolds imagines herself wriggling around inside of a giant birdcage, performing a wild mating dance to lure Powell away from his fiancée.


10. The Happening (1967)

Yes, long before there was a really bad M. Night Shyamalan movie called The Happening, there was a really bad Elliot Silverstein movie called The Happening, but it was about how the hippies were coming to kill everybody instead of how the trees were coming to kill everybody. Which one is worse is hard to figure, but the 2008 movie didn't have a truly deranged theme song by The Supremes. Best described as an incompetent beatnik predecessor to Ruthless People, The Happening involves a gang of bored counterculture teens (played by, among others, a wildly overacting Faye Dunaway and a decrepit George Maharis, neither of whom are even remotely teenaged) kidnapping bewildered mob boss Anthony Quinn, only to discover that no one particularly wants him back. The Happening attempts to hide its hippie-fear behind an indulgent chuckle as the gang indulges in wacky hijinks, but the laughter it directs at the new generation has a distinct nervous-chuckle quality.

11. The Incident (1967)

Martin Sheen's debut film The Incident is in large part a study of ingroup/outgroup relationships, a cinematic metaphor that bears out Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous poem that begins "They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist…" When a common threat menaces a bunch of disparate types—a teenage couple, a black couple, an old couple, a middle-class white couple, and so forth—on a late-night New York City subway, everyone who isn't an immediate target cringes and makes excuses to not get involved on behalf of strangers, and black/young/old/etc. "obviously not our people" strangers at that. The common threat that unites people across race, class, and age boundaries? Scary young people. On the long, excruciating ride out of the city, greaser juvenile delinquents Sheen and Tony Musante physically harass and humiliate one person after another, personifying the big threat to the '60s establishment—kids these days, with their lack of respect, their love for destruction and cruelty, and their indiscriminate attacks on everyone else in the world, even their own kind.


12. Wild In The Streets (1968)

Wild In The Streets cannily exploited fears among grown-up, responsible adults about the depths of depravity exhibited by a seemingly out-of-control, sensation-crazed youth culture. Christopher Jones stars as a young pop star who is elected president with the help of his adoring fan base after the voting age is lowered to 14. Jones has everyone over 35 rounded up and placed in detention camps, where they're force-fed LSD—even his own crazed harridan of a mother (Shelley Winters, who enjoyed a healthy second career playing overbearing nightmare moms). Ultimately, however, he watches his youth-powered rebellion turn on him in a bitterly ironic ending.

13. River's Edge (1986)

The chillingly ambiguous River's Edge begins with a young woman's naked body lying pale and lifeless down by the river. The woman's boyfriend (Daniel Roebuck) killed her in a crime of passion and isn't exactly wracked with remorse; on the contrary, he invites a select group of friends to take a look at his handiwork, which they do with blank regard. It's taken as a given that nobody will call the police, and in fact, the killer's closest buddy (a typically deranged Crispin Glover) makes it his mission to conceal the murder. Though someone's slumbering conscience is eventually aroused, the film points to the moral vacuity of today's youths, and means for audiences to be horrified by their dead-eyed lack of horror.

14. The Warriors (1979)

The punks have taken over the streets in Walter Hill's cult classic The Warriors, and it's made to look like they're the only ones left in New York City, as if a bomb dropped but the gang members survived, cockroach-like, to keep terrorizing the city. At the beginning of the film, the charismatic leader of the city's most powerful gang addresses a summit of his peers and offers a radical proposal: Consolidate all the street gangs in New York into one united organization, thus eliminating in-fighting and turf wars, and directing their collective energies toward fleecing the citizenry. Can you dig it? It actually takes the edge off the film somewhat when that leader is shot dead before his dream can come to fruition: Sure, the Hi-Hats, the Lizzies, and the Baseball Furies are free to elevate the crime rate, but at least they aren't doing it together.

15. The Substitute (1996)

"I'm in charge of this class. I'm the warrior chief. I'm the merciless God of anything that stirs in my universe. You fuck with me and you'll suffer my wrath." There have been plenty of movies about white people coming into inner-city schools and whipping the students into shape, but nothing quite like The Substitute, which brings the subtly racist, paternalistic elements of those films right to the surface. The film accepts as a given that an urban high-school classroom would be chaotic and dangerous, loaded with black and Hispanic street toughs who listen to gangsta rap, stencil graffiti on the desks and blackboards, and conceal ice-picks and other weapons in their pockets. Cold-blooded mercenary Tom Berenger isn't having any of it: He wants to teach his class about Vietnam, and if they aren't willing to listen, he'll snap their fingers like dried twigs. No wonder the movie inspired three sequels: Adults love the fantasy that they're somehow in charge.

16. Over The Edge (1979)

Before Matt Dillon played troubled young men in Drugstore Cowboy and a trio of films (Tex, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish) based on S.E. Hinton novels, he made his big-screen debut as Ritchie White in Jonathan Kaplan's Over The Edge. The movie chronicles the illicit acts—smoking dope, toting guns, vandalizing school, having underage sex—Dillon and his small clique of teenage buddies get up to while trapped in a horrifyingly bland version of suburban America. Parents at the time, though, were probably most appalled at the Clockwork Orange-esque sequence in which the boys terrorize a PTA meeting. As the king of angst-ridden rebellion himself, Kurt Cobain, said of the film, "It pretty much defined my whole personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy."


17. Suburbia (1984)

After getting a taste of the wild punk-rock life with her epochal documentary, The Decline Of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris set out to fictionalize the L.A. punk scene in Suburbia. Backed by a savage hardcore soundtrack—and featuring a young Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers—the film follows a group of adolescent runaways, molestation victims, and drug addicts called The Rejects (or The TRs) who live Lord Of The Flies style in an abandoned house. It's a chilling, ultimately depressing portrait of juvenile hopelessness and abuse (self- and otherwise)—in other words, any parent's worst nightmare.


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