One of the most auspicious filmmaking debuts in decades was Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the 1999 film that quickly established Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter as an expert in cinematic renderings of little girls lost. The haunting film, which screens Monday, March 23 at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of its Shiner Soundtrack series, is based on the cult novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and tells the tale of the Lisbon sisters — doomed teenagers in the late ’70s — through the eyes of the boys obsessed with their blonde hair and melancholic pubescent behaviors shining through a black pool of suicidal tendencies.
Coppola’s teen movie follows a darker version of the genre in documenting what it’s truly like to be young. In the “doomed teen” flick, puberty turns on two switches simultaneously: the one that acknowledges our own mortality amidst the banality of school, studying, popularity and worrying about sex, and the switch that says, “Fuck it, I’m never getting old.” A far cry from High School Musical or a Frankie and Annette romp, 'teens in peril' has been a popular trope for decades. Just ask James Dean, whose Rebel Without a Cause put parents on edge in 1955.
Here are six more films that waste no time celebrating first kisses and best friends forever, but instead focus on dying young and trying to leave behind beautiful corpses.
6) It Follows
Opens March 27 at the Sie FilmCenter
In 2010, freshman director David Robert Mitchell directed The Myth of the American Sleepover, a fresh, crisp tale of a group of suburban Detroit teens weaving between friends and crushes on dreamy summer day/night. The indie drama had all the trappings of a slasher film, including the energy of teen life with the building dread that a body count was about to break out courtesy of a homicidal maniac — but no such tragedy strikes, and that serves the film just fine. Still, it seems as though Mitchell felt those echoes, too, and so his new film, It Follows, keeps the suburban setting and mythos of youth but turns the dread up to 11, unleashing a big bad into the surroundings: S-E-X. The teens of It Follows are minding their own sleepy business until Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with a cute boy who then informs her that he’s just passed on a terrifying evil that can take on any physical form and will kill her if she doesn’t pass the evil along like a chain letter to some other unsuspecting youth — and even then, should future recipients die at the hands of the evil, it’ll zip down the line to come back for her. Only Jay can see the evil when it arrives — but she rallies her BFFs to help watch her back and fight the bad juju that the error of taking sex lightly seems to have wrought. Mitchell’s film drudges up all of the worry and fear that getting close to someone will drive them away and leave you with a nasty reminder of why you shouldn’t have done what you did — although, weirdly, the solution to this problem created by sex ends up being…more sex.
“Dear Diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a body count,” writes Winona Ryder’s Veronica in this pitch-black 1988 comedy about the dangers of trying to maneuver the twists and turns of high school popularity. New girl Veronica falls in with the Heathers, three like-named bitches who rule the school while the losers drool. Veronica can’t stand her new friends but knows that leaving them will kill her status among the students, until she meets J.D. (Christian Slater) a dark, brooding, trenchcoated smart ass whom she can’t help but feel crazy affection for, as he takes her away from her political woes. When J.D. suggests killing the Heathers and any other popular type, Veronica thinks he’s crazy — but when he actually goes through with killing the first queen bee, she jumps in to help pen the cover-up suicide notes. Unfortunately, any good will is curbed when the student body’s response to the popular kids offing themselves is misread as the latest fad and underclassmen decide to kill themselves as well, leaving J.D to decide that the only way to fix the problem is just to kill everybody, himself and Veronica included. The film is a master class in dark comedy but found a bit of its bite reduced after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up Columbine High School in 1999, with an eerily similar plan to balance the social scales. That tragedy reminded us that the horrors of high school don’t limit themselves to the big screen, and that sometimes truth truly can be stranger than fiction.
4) The Doom Generation
Queer filmmaker Gregg Araki (The Living End, Mysterious Skin) launched his “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy, following the jaded exploits of LGBTQ youth, in 1993 with Totally Fucked Up and concluded it with the MTV-on-crack Nowhere in 1999. But it’s the trilogy’s second chapter, 1995's The Doom Generation, that stands as the series’ most memorable, surreal and bloodthirsty entry. Rose McGowan and James Duval play teens Amy Blue and Jordan White, who pick up sexy drifter Xavier Red (Jonathan Schaech) and head out on a sex, drug and violence-filled spree across America, where teenage nihilism meets hazy sexuality in a blender of conservative values and crystal meth. The actions of Red, White and Blue (get it?) are of kids who realized that school taught them nothing, parents don’t care and they probably won’t live to see 22 — so they might as well go out in a neon-colored blaze of glory.
The creepy, terrifying rub about Carrie White, Stephen King’s thrilling creation made real by director Brian DePalma, is that we’ve all been her. We’ve all been awkward, inward husks of hormones, bad skin and judgment at one time or another, but Carrie developed telekinetic powers that she saw as a gift — until the school skank decides that she wants to teach Carrie a lesson for getting her kicked out of prom. A humiliating plan is hatched, and when things go according to plan, Carrie’s fury is felt by the entire student body in a bloody inferno of revenge and innocence lost. Lessons learned: Never judge a book by its cover and never torture a duckling.
Controversial photographer Larry Clark met eighteen-year-old skater boy Harmony Korine, who offered him a peek into the world of teenagers in New York City. Korine wrote the screenplay about a group of boys on a hunt to get drunk, high and deflower as many girls as they can. When one of the girls (Chloe Sevigny) becomes HIV positive after only one encounter, she sets out to find the afflicted Romeo — knowing full well that another young virgin (Rosario Dawson) is next on his list. A masterpiece of cinéma vérité, the film wore its NC-17 rating as a medal to its grittiness and as a reminder to parents of the age-old question, “It’s 9 p.m., do you know where your kids are?”
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1) A Nightmare on Elm Street
In the world of horror films, dead teenagers making mistakes is common currency: Having sex, drinking and loose morals usually guarantee that you won’t make it to the last reel. But what happens when the mistakes made are not the teens' own, but instead belong to the parents? Wes Craven’s Nightmare paints a terrifying scenario where vigilante justice paid on a child molester/murderer by a group of parents sends one Fred Krueger into the dream world where, years later, that angry mob’s children meet the villain and his trademark razor glove in their nightmares when Freddy extracts his own revenge. Sex and loose morals mean nothing to this evil, as it seems intent on taking the teens to upset the parents who burned Krueger to death so many years ago. In the end, Nightmare creates a final girl heroine in Nancy (played by the plucky Heather Langenkamp), who's smart and resourceful — despite not just the deaths of her friends, but having to take care of an alcoholic mother and rely on an absent cop father. That she’s able to hold it all together in dreams and reality and prove that some teenagers really do want to live to see their thirties is a rare but welcome sight in the world of dark teenage flicks.
The Virgin Suicides plays at 7 p.m. Monday, March 23 at the Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 Santa Fe Drive in LIttleton. Tickets are $10.75; get them at drafthouse.com. It Follows opens March 27 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax. Tickets are $10; find more info at denverfilm.org.