Teen films went through a conspicuous resurgence in the 1980s, a time without social upheaval and yet during which teen experimentation with sex and drugs was on the increase. Films began to reflect this trend. MTV, a new and comprehensive system for reaching the teen market through not only music videos but concerts, clothing, game shows, live events, and of course commercials, also contributed to the renewed emphasis on teens.
Another key factor in the 1980s spike in teen films that is often overlooked is the emergence of the shopping mall. Arcades and food courts replaced the pool halls and soda fountains of the past, attracting groups of teens, and the centralization of multiple theaters in or near such malls increased the number of screen venues and offered moviegoers greater variety and convenience. Thus the need to cater to the young audiences who frequented those malls became apparent to Hollywood, and an out-pouring of films directed to and featuring teens ensued. Teens in the 1980s were then able to go to the mall and select the particular youth movie experience that appealed to them most, and Hollywood tried to keep up with changing teen interests and styles to ensure ongoing profits. More significantly for the audience, teens were then exposed to a wider range of characters and situations that directly addressed their current social conditions, even if many of the films that did so clearly had puerile provocation as their motive.
Halloween (1978) initiated the new cycle of teen horror films that would—like the killers they depicted—rise, die, and be reborn. The film refined the scenario that future "slasher" films followed: a mysterious figure stalks and kills teens, all of whom are sexually active, while one escapes with her life, ostensibly because she is a virgin. Thus followed similar films, most of which launched series: Prom Night (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In these films, the price for teenage transgressions like premarital sex and hedonism was not punishment by social institutions like parents, teachers, or the law, but rather death at the hands of a greater evil. By the late 1980s much of the teen horror market moved to home video, where an R rating would have little or no bearing, and thereafter very few teen slasher movies were released. However, in the late 1990s the unexpected success of the revisionist Scream (1996), along with IKnow What You Did Last Summer (1997) and the sequels to these films, revitalized the subgenre. Indeed, the youth horror film may have previously faded because it had come to rely on unintelligent, unsophisticated young characters. This was an image of themselves that teens began to reject, welcoming instead Scream and films like The Faculty (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000), in which not only the killers but also the heroes and heroines are smart and tough.
Many youth films in the early 1980s also began to feature teens engaging in sexual practices. The majority were decidedly negative in their portrayals, demonstrating the complications of sex, as well as the disappointments, confusions, and potential dangers. The most common plot of youth sex films throughout the early 1980s was the teen quest to lose one's virginity, as in Little Darlings (1980), Porky's (1982), The Last American Virgin (1982), Losin' It (1983), and Joy of Sex (1984). The sex quest film came into its prime with the very
successful Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which was followed by the even more popular Risky Business (1983); both of these films promoted new young actors (Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Cruise) who would further boost Hollywood's sagging box office. Despite numerous other films in this vein, the teen sex quest story line became exhausted, and worse yet, irresponsible given the spread of AIDS and a sudden increase in teen pregnancies. Hollywood then steered clear of teen sex for the most part until the mid-1990s.
A major figure in teen cinema of the 1980s was John Hughes (b. 1950), who wrote and directed his first film, Sixteen Candles , in 1984. In addition to launching the career of Molly Ringwald, the film won critical acclaim for its hilarious yet often sensitive depiction of a girl's rite of passage, and Hughes opened up the story by introducing an engaging cast of supporting characters. His ability not only to convey the contemporary adolescent experience, but to do so from a number of perspectives, would become the hallmark of his teen movies. Between 1984 and 1987 Hughes went on to direct or write six teen films, including The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Ferris Beuller's Day Off (1986). Thereafter, teen characters in many American movies were shown with a greater depth of understanding. Hughes also cultivated a troupe of young stars, later dubbed the "Brat Pack," who populated most of the important teen films of the 1980s.
A distinctive and socially significant subgenre of teen films, the African American crime film, emerged in the early 1990s. These films showed urban black youth fighting for their lives in the face of a racist legal and political system, difficult family and class conditions, and the influence of media images of young black "gangstas." In doing so, they exposed audiences to (male) African American youth culture and forced them to question the state of race relations in the nation. These films were instrumental in reviving critical and financial legitimacy for teen films, which had declined the late 1980s. Most chronicles of these films begin with the hugely influential Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), although Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich, 1991) opened just weeks before; both films feature young men who are old enough to know they can change their lives but not wise enough to know how. Similar films followed: Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Fresh (1994), and Clockers (1995). Yet by the mid-1990s, the moral lessons of these films had become worn and the characters too familiar. These films, action-packed with violence, did not deny the potent temptation of crime, nor did they deny race as a factor in the difficulties facing their young characters. Rather, these films suggested that the greatest menace is the city itself, where crime, racism, and death are pervasive.
These films were the first to promote teenage African American stars with any consistency, yet after the sub-genre petered out, black performers were again relegated to sidekick and background roles in the vast majority of teen films. This would remain the case into the next decade, when some films began to explore the African American youth experience beyond urban crime: George Washington (2000), Bring It On (2000), Remember the Titans (2000), and Save the Last Dance (2001). Still, there remain strikingly few films about African American youth overall; Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003), which features a black cast, is simply a remake of a 1987 teen film that featured white characters. Despite the success of many black actors and films featuring them as well as other racial or ethnic groups, the industry remains woefully out of touch and disinterested in exploring the lives and culture of African American youth.
The strikingly humorous and often affecting films that John Hughes made in just the few years between 1984 and 1987 became classics of the teen film genre. Hughes was a teenager himself when his family moved from Michigan to the suburbs of Chicago, a move that would resonate in many of his teenage characters who deal with displacement and alienation, and often do so in the Chicago area. After attending the University of Arizona for a few years and marrying his high school sweetheart, Hughes eventually became an editor at National Lampoon magazine in 1979, where he met various colleagues connected to the movie industry, leading to his first produced screenplay, National Lampoon's Class Reunion (1982). Hughes soon followed this dubious debut with scripts for the hits Mr. Mom (1983) and National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).
He was offered his first directorial assignment after penning Sixteen Candles (1984), which wrestled with teenage torments beyond the prevailing pabulum of the time, marked by both crass humor and sincere characterizations. In 1985 Hughes carried the success of this film into his next two teen productions, the farcical fantasy Weird Science and the influential adolescent angst drama The Breakfast Club . By this point, his recurring actors were labeled the "Brat Pack" and became the most recognizable young stars of the decade: Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy. Although Hughes again employed Ringwald when he wrote the appealing Pretty in Pink (directed by Howard Deutch in 1986), he then abandoned his troupe, writing and directing the hit film Ferris Beuller's Day Off (1986) with other young performers.
Hughes wrote one more teen script that Deutch directed, Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), which offered more of the same familiar empowerment to its youth confronting gender and class conflicts. Hughes moved away from teen subject matter thereafter, writing or directing movies that featured younger children in prominent roles, such as Uncle Buck (1989), Curly Sue (1991), Dennis the Menace (1993), and the comedy phenomenon Home Alone (1990). Despite the occasional success of some of his later scripts, such as 101 Dalmatians (1996), Hughes did not regain his previous fame, and by 2000 he began writing scripts under the pseudonym Edmond Dantés. In 2001 he produced a script by his son James, titled New Port South , yet even its teenage characters and suburban Chicago setting generated scant attention for the erstwhile auteur of 1980s teen cinema.
Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989)
Bernstein, Jonathan. Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies . New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.