By Jed Mayer | Press Play July 3, 2014 at 3:31AM
In May of 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz went missing. Soon after his disappearance, images of his face began to appear on lamp posts, store windows, newspapers, and television. Later, his face became the first to appear on a milk carton, spearheading a campaign by the National Child Safety Council which was to expand through the following decade until leading psychologists discovered that the images were causing children grave emotional distress. Anyone growing up at that time knows that there was something uniquely haunting about those milk-carton photos: poorly reproduced images of smiling faces that resembled a mockery of their likely fate, they stared at you from the other side of your cereal bowl, as you began each day with an oblique warning about the dangers lurking just outside the door.
The 70s was a scary time for anyone—nuclear disasters, political revolutions, oil conflicts—but it seemed a particularly disturbing one for kids. Besides being inundated with images of violence and death—from Vietnam to Son of Sam to Jonestown—children seemed particularly threatened. The year that began with the highly publicized disappearance of Etan Patz ended with the deaths of eleven concertgoers at a Who concert in Cincinnati, crushed by a stampede of fans when the general admission gate opened. I remember it as a time when subcultures began to separate teens from one another, creating gulfs wider than those of race or class. I remember 1979 as the first year I was scared to leave the house.
By the 1980s the films of John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, and Cameron Crowe would transform teen angst into popular entertainment. As entertaining as these films were, they didn’t come close to capturing the violence and anxiety of being a teen in those years. Although its gritty urban setting was a far cry from the tree-lined, Midwestern suburban streets where I grew up, Walter Hill’s The Warriors was the first film I remember seeing that captured the sense of division among young people at that time. Although the film became notorious for allegedly sparking acts of gang violence following its 1979 debut, its narrative is positioned squarely from the victims’ point of view.
When the gangs of the five boroughs hold a summit in a vaguely post-apocalyptic New York, their plan of uniting their forces against The Man turns suddenly into a witch hunt in which the Coney Island gang called The Warriors is singled out and pursued across the city. Despite its sensationalistic, comic-book trappings, what struck me most about the film was the way it captured the everyday, matter-of-fact experience of scapegoating and persecution that are so much a part of youth culture. I believe it was around this time that our junior high English teacher made us read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but as powerful as that book is, it somehow misses the banality of evil in children, its atavistic narrative of tribal regression masking the effortlessness with which young people can mark each other out for victimization. I would argue that The Warriors became an instant cult classic not only for its depiction of young people engaging in casual violence, but more for its capturing of the experience of being at the wrong end of teens' destructive tendencies.
Closer to home (or my home, rather) in terms of setting and sensibility, Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge sets its tale of teen persecution and rebellion in a suburban community where the planners have ignored the interests of their children, with disastrous results. Set in the imaginary planned community of New Granada, Colorado, no film more accurately captures the experience of growing up bored in the 1970s. The identical, faux-rustic, board-sided ranch homes and artificial lakes looked exactly like those of Croixwood, the planned community going up a few miles from our high school, where my classmates and I would later skip classes, spending the afternoons watching TV and getting high in a series of interchangeable sunken living rooms.
Over the Edge is marvelously matter-of-fact in its depiction of teen drug use, sex, and violence, especially refreshing during an era laden with “topical” made-for-TV movies and after-school specials depicting kids jumping out of windows on angel dust or clawing their faces off on bad acid trips. The kids in Over the Edge were so familiar that it might have been cast from my high school. Their soundtrack was our soundtrack: Cheap Trick, the Cars, and Van Halen, rather than the canned nonsense typically inserted into teen films; their parties were our parties, with joints being passed and beer drunk by kids standing around and talking, not all that differently from at our parents’ parties; their violence was our violence, with a pair of kids jumping another kid on his way home at night and pummeling him, with no further consequences, no counseling sessions, no anti-bullying campaigns; their motto was our motto, which was any kid who tells on another kid’s a dead kid.
And that’s where fear enters into the life of a teen: friends can become persecutors with little warning, and violence has to be endured in silence. In my high school, where virtually everyone was white and comfortably middle class, there were few markers of difference. Once punk and new wave broke, which for me happened with the release of The Clash’s London Calling in 1979, music and fashion became a new way of defining ourselves, but also of marking us out. My friends and I were routinely pushed around—tripped in the hallways, lunch trays flipped, gym shorts pulled down—but it rarely escalated to anything major. That is, until one night when my friend and I went to a party dressed in our version of punk fashion, which for me meant ripped jeans, a Stranglers t-shirt, and a loud tie worn around my bare neck. Pretty tame, and pretty silly, but for the Skynyrd and Zeppelin crowd at Stillwater High School, it was an outrageous act of provocation. On our way home my friend Stu and I were jumped by half a dozen drunken music critics and pummeled until we could no longer stand. I am simultaneously proud and ashamed of the fact that we never told who did it.
When Carl, the protagonist of Over the Edge, undergoes a similar experience, he makes light of the incident, telling his mother to simply “dump a bottle of peroxide on my head.” Despite its unflinching realism, the film is largely reticent about the inner lives of its characters, and we get little sense of what they are actually thinking and feeling as the story spirals towards its riotous conclusion, when the kids lock their parents in the high school auditorium during a town meeting while they vandalize and set fire to their cars. The closest we get to knowing what Carl is feeling after he gets beaten up is when he puts on his headphones and cranks Cheap Trick’s anthemic “Surrender.”
That brief moment of interiority, with a teenager lying on his bed and brooding, is essentially the point of departure for the strangest teen film of that era, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It’s protagonist, Mike, is shown in several scenes lying in a state between sleeping and waking. These scenes typically end with the walls of his bedroom suddenly transformed into a graveyard scene, where corpses erupt on either side of him and try to pull him underground. While The Warriors and Over the Edge show us the public side of teen life, Phantasm depicts its dark unconscious. The streets where Mike spends his days and nights are strangely deserted, fortune-tellers give him cryptic advice and offer strange tests of endurance, and his parents are conveniently dead, replaced by the ominous patriarchal figure of The Tall Man, who stalks the palatial funeral parlor overlooking the town.
Phantasm’s fragmented, dream-like narrative centers around a sinister plot that reads like a bizarre metaphor for growing up. Mike and his brother Jody, along with a delightfully eccentric ice cream man named Reggie, uncover a ghastly slave trade in which dead bodies are shrunk and sent to another planet to become zombie laborers. While the teens seem to defeat the forces of evil, the plot’s circularity and fragmentation leave this in doubt. Like my own experience of being a teen, fears can become realities, just as certainties can become illusions. The only thing I knew for sure was that those kids on the milk carton were missing, and wherever they were, they certainly weren’t smiling.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.