The phrase “rite of passage” is thrown around with nostalgic abandon when people discuss the pop culture of their teen years but it still means something when applied accurately. Such a phrase shouldn’t be limited to the stuff you still think is cool or the whims of revisionist history.
For example, if you came of age during the ’80s, the teen sex comedy was a big deal. Critics hated these films, your parents didn’t want you watching them and once you got old enough, they lost their cool factor and were consigned to back of the junk closet. However, they remain relevant pop culture artifacts, a kind of funhouse mirror built out of hormonal urges, shameless humor and commercial exploitation whose reflection reveals more about the culture that spawned them than anyone might want to admit.
After a long wait, this fertile and underexplored topic has finally gotten a thought-provoking exploration in Teen Movie Hell. This collection of reviews and essays was masterminded by Mike “McBeardo” McPadden of Heavy Metal Movies fame. In a timely and interesting touch, he has collaborated with a number of noteworthy female voices from the cult movie criticism world to create a volume that hits a nice balance between appreciating the fun of these films and finding the intriguing, often accidental cultural commentary lurking beneath their madcap surfaces.
The heart of Teen Movie Hell is an expansive array of reviews ranging from two paragraphs to two pages. The focus is primarily on films from American Graffiti in 1973 until the mid-90s when it faded on the back of direct-to-video fare like Bikini Drive-In. The majority of the key titles – Animal House, Meatballs, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin, Valley Girl, Screwballs, Porky’s, Zapped, etc. – all get discussed here alongside an array of lesser-known quickies. In an interesting touch, a few influential pre-cycle films are included like Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, the proto-teen rebel opus Zero For Conduct and the influential Beach Party.
The majority of these reviews were penned by McPadden and take on a voice that blends gonzo humor and wordplay with a sharp take on what works and what doesn’t in these films by modern standards. He’s not afraid to defend movies that would be chewed up and spat out with disgust by mainstream critics and annoyingly “woke” youthful revisionists: cases in point include entertaining defenses of films like Screwballs, Hamburger: The Motion Picture and The Party Animal.
However, McPadden is also not afraid to admit when a film’s excesses veer into wrongheadedness: there’s an artful assessment of Revenge Of The Nerds that confronts how some of its key gags fall on the wrong side of topics like rape and revenge porn, an unfortunate misstep that mars a movie that is otherwise quite likeable. Similarly, he isn’t afraid to take down sacred cows like the work of John Hughes: there are scathing reviews of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles that take exception with how Hughes built his films around pampered suburbanites, communicating a conformist viewpoint that sided with the snobs in the teen sex comedy’s timeless “snobs vs. slobs” debate.
A select few reviews are penned by female critics and they consistently grab the viewer’s attention by offering different writing styles and viewpoints: Heather Drain offers a wistful take on Blue Summer that reflects that film’s style, zine veteran Lisa Carver offers up a take on Night Of The Comet that mixes witty observations on ’80s life with a sympathetic nod to millenials and Christina Ward unleashes an incendiary “counterpoint” take to McPadden’s Valley Girl review that is so angry it’ll scorch your eyebrows. Interestingly, the best of the guest reviews come from Rachel McPadden, McBeardo’s better half: her keen assessments of Foxes and Little Darlings really bring the reader into a woman’s viewpoint on these unique, teen girl-sympathetic classics.
Woman writers also shine in the essays that bookend the main reviews section. Highlights in these areas include a piece by Kat Ellinger that defends in the artistic and cultural-commentary value of teen sex comedies in this overly censorious modern era and a reminiscence by Wendy McClure about how Fast Times At Ridgemont High demystified the concept of abortion for her at a time when the topic was verboten. There’s also a well-researched and thoughtfully written piece from Kier-La Janisse about the “sexy schoolteacher” subgenre and the difference between what the ’70s and ’80s entries in it said about women, their sexual agency and feminism. That said, my favorite of the essays is a brief autobiographical piece from the great Eddie Deezen, the uber-nerd of teen cinema. It turns out he’s pretty funny in written form, too.
You probably won’t agree with everything in Teen Movie Hell: for example, Schlockmania likes Porky’s II: The Next Day much more than McPadden does (that insane third act remains a peak of teen sex comedy lunacy) and the author has a curiously gentle assessment of Pretty In Pink. There’s also the occasional slip-up with factoids and some titles whose absence here is surprising (missing in action: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Clueless and Schlockmania favorite The Hollywood Knights).
That said, Teen Movie Hell does an admirable job tackling a usually disrespected cinematic subject in a manner that communicates the fun of these films as well as their pop-cultural worth. Even better, the array of women’s voices involved enhance the overall level of cultural insight in a way you wouldn’t expect from a book on teen sex comedies. If you’re interested in this topic, this book is worth your time.