As the Halloween dance rages — a gymnasium of high schoolers in cheap costumes bouncing around to the sounds of The Offspring — one teen arrives with murder on the brain. Anton (Devon Sawa) cuts through the crowd, vaults onstage and waves the bleeding stump of his arm at his schoolmates.
“Everybody go home! There’s a psycho killer here!” he shouts, as annoyed kids laugh and pelt him with garbage. “I cut off my hand, and it’s going to kill you all!” The lead singer wrestles the mic away from Anton and tries to restart the show, but he can’t: The possessed, bodiless hand has dropped onto his head and ripped off his scalp.
This is the climax of “Idle Hands,” a horror-comedy about a happy-go-lucky stoner too baked to realize that his hand has been possessed by a demon until well into his appendage’s murder spree. By this point in the movie, his hand has brutally killed his parents and his two best friends, who are resurrected as wisecracking zombies. He finally cut his hand off, only to realize that this wouldn’t put an end to the rampage. Once the lead singer of The Offspring has been summarily dispatched, a bloody night at the once-idyllic high school begins. The ensuing mayhem, all peppered with jokes, leaves students dead or horribly maimed.
“Idle Hands” opened in U.S. theaters on April 30, 1999. Ten days earlier, two seniors had entered Columbine High School in Colorado, each bearing two guns, and murdered 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. For critics, film executives and American society at large, the unhappy coincidence forced the question: Was the movie not just bad, but wrong?
“If timing is everything, then the recent carnage at Columbine High School indicates that now could scarcely be less opportune for the opening of ‘Idle Hands,’” wrote Lawrence Van Gelder in The New York Times. The Hartford Courant’s Malcolm Johnson was blunter: His review appeared under the blaring headline “WHY WAS THIS MOVIE EVEN MADE?”
Columbia Pictures executives met prior to the release to discuss “whether it might be prudent to move the release date of ‘Idle Hands,’ for fear of offending the public’s still-raw sensibilities,” according to CNN. Instead, they issued a statement insisting that the film bore “no resemblance to that tragedy.” The movie opened on schedule.
Even the framing of that question — the concept that moving the release date back a few weeks could sufficiently remove the specter of real-life mass murder from the public’s mind to protect the film’s reception — seems painfully quaint in 2019, when the threat of mass shootings is unrelenting.
But back then, “Idle Hands” was not an outlier.
1999 saw several other teen comedies revolving around gruesome violence in and around schools, like “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” In August, the release of “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” (pre-Columbine title: “Killing Mrs. Tingle”) still faced a raw, grieving public. “Jawbreaker,” a “Heathers” retread about a trio of popular teen girls who accidentally kill their best friend by gagging her with a jawbreaker during a playful birthday “kidnapping,” narrowly avoided direct comparison to Columbine by hitting theaters two months before the massacre, in February. (Reviews were nonetheless unkind.) And then there were the edgy 1999 comedies for teens that didn’t feature explicit gore, like “Election” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
What made 1999 the year of the dark teen comedy? And why has the genre nearly disappeared from theaters in the ensuing two decades?
It’s facile to suggest that innocence existed pre-1999 and that we collectively lost it at the turning of the millennium. And yet it does seem telling that prior to Columbine, the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq ― and a host of other destabilizing events, including two major economic bubble collapses in the early aughts ― American moviemakers felt comfortable mixing their teen angst and violence with their teen camp and comedy. As the reality of even middle-class American teens looks unremittingly hellish, perhaps turning their pain into humor seems tasteless. Meanwhile, the entire movie industry has shifted strategies. It’s been years since blockbusters aimed primarily at teens have looked like a reliable investment.
1999 was a golden year overall for teen film, rich with silver screen romps for and about the high school set, including sweeter-natured flicks like “American Pie,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “She’s All That.” It had daffy sexcapades and candy-bright rom-coms and teary melodramas. This may have been the high-water mark of the John Hughes-esque teen flick, soon to be subsumed by a tidal wave of fantasy sagas and superhero franchises.
But while high school comedies haven’t gone away, the releases of 1999 were also suffused with a cynical, morbid wit that now seems largely absent from teen movies. Contemporary observers noted — not always appreciatively ― that films blending grim subject matter and comedic tone were having a bit of a moment. Dennis Lim, then a critic for the Village Voice, called “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” “yet another black comedy that misunderstands and misrepresents the genre — call them Very Bad Jawbreakers.” Upon watching “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” for the first time this year, I had to agree: The motivations and mechanics of the student-on-teacher revenge plot are as distractingly flimsy as an airplane made of cardboard.
Film booms don’t come out of nowhere, and those cynical twists on high school comedy had clear roots in the classic John Hughes formula, argues Catherine Driscoll, a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney and author of “Teen Film: A Critical Introduction.” In his slew of wildly popular mid-’80s teen movies — including “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — Hughes depicted an adolescent world that was normatively middle-class, suburban, white and rooted in the social ecosystem of the high school, a place where teenage self-discovery and connection must find its way around the obstacles of social stereotypes, cliques and neglectful or antagonistic adults.
Dark teen movies like “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” “But I’m a Cheerleader” and “Election” — not to mention precursors like “Heathers” — are “angsty inversions of the staples of the ’80s American teen film,” Driscoll said in a phone interview. Dark teen comedies weren’t birthed in response to John Hughes — arguable precursors include 1971’s “Harold and Maude” and 1966’s “Lord Love a Duck” — but many of those that followed his heyday, she said, reacted more specifically to “conventions about high school and suburban life and domestic closure on growing up [that] became way tighter around John Hughes in particular.” Some popular teen movies in 1999, like “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” drew from the Hughes formula, while others aggressively subverted it.
Take “But I’m a Cheerleader,” in which heroine Megan Bloomfield (Natasha Lyonne) fits so perfectly into her social category, with her blond hair, neat skirts and football-player boyfriend, that her true self is masked not only from others but from herself. Even when her family and loved ones stage an intervention, pointing to all the signs that she’s actually a lesbian, she remains firmly in denial. The consequences of not adhering to her social category, meanwhile, are far more severe than a Hughes-standard diss at a party: She’s packed off to a grotesque reeducation camp where gay and lesbian teens learn to be straight through dating simulations and enforced blue and pink uniforms. (Though the term isn’t used in the film, this is, of course, a satirical depiction of a real, extremely damaging process called conversion therapy.)
Where a Hughes movie might have gently led its characters into a new awareness that their superficial differences shouldn’t define them, Megan is ejected from the ecosystem until her deeper differences can be removed, making her compatible with normal high school life again. Only when this happens will her family and friends accept her back. In the end, she chooses to reject the entire paradigm and embrace her love for another girl, overthrowing high school conformity at great personal cost.
“Election” and “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and, to a lesser extent, “The Breakfast Club,” hinge on a conflict between a teenage student and a malicious school authority figure. In “Election,” the feud takes on a darker hue through the disturbing willingness of Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) to harm other students in her quest for power, but also through the juxtaposition against Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) with his wholesome, if rather sweaty, teacher persona and his dangerous moral vacuity. Not only does he blame Tracy for the firing of his best friend, another teacher who sexually groomed and assaulted her, but he transmutes that resentment and his own repressed desire for her into a childish, Mr. Rooney-esque vendetta. In “Election,” a teacher can do more than threaten a wayward kid with Saturday detention or needless insults; he can rape her, manipulate her or use her own victimhood to justify derailing her future. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta and clearly geared toward an adult audience as well, “Election” punctures both the trope of the endlessly lovable or blameless student and the comforting sense that there’s a limit to the harm a teacher can inflict on even a loathed pupil.
“Teaching Mrs. Tingle” also parodically, if less deftly, engages the trope of a wise teenager exposing and humiliating a teacher who threatens the kid’s future. “Jawbreaker” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous” turn the standard depiction of high school as a festering pit of backbiting popularity contests into something a bit more deadly. “Idle Hands” riffs unevenly on the slacker comedy.
It’s not that it took until 1999 for these reactions to ’80s teen movies to gestate; that happened almost immediately. “Consider the biggest teen movies in the years before 1999 were full of satire and self-critique,” Timothy Shary, a film scholar and author of “Generation Multiplex: American Youth in Cinema Since 1980,” told HuffPost in an email. “Jawbreaker” was derided at the time as a (weak) imitation of 1988’s “Heathers.” Besides, a comedy doesn’t have to be as morbid as “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” or as cynical as “Election” to comment ironically on genre conventions. Shary pointed out that movies like “Clueless” and the “Scream” series also fit this mold.
Even Hughes’ own movies could be pointedly self-aware. In “Ferris Bueller,” the school secretary approvingly notes that the title character is beloved by all the niche cliques: “The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads ― they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” That a prim secretary would so matter-of-factly sort students into reductive, stereotypical groups can be nothing but a wry meta-commentary. By 1999, this self-conscious ’80s-style high school film was well-entrenched in the industry pipeline ― both the standard-issue comedies like “She’s All That” and the edgier counterparts ― and the pump was primed for a major spurt of angsty comedy.
But with the subgenre in the midst of its boom year, things took a turn. Many of the films hadn’t even made it to theaters before the country’s mood started to shift. Columbine was not the first school shooting in the United States — far from it — but at the time, it was the most deadly mass shooting in a high school, and it inflicted a deep psychic wound on the nation.
Desperate to understand and prevent another Columbine, politicians and the media didn’t miss the alarming reality that movies may contain violence ― even violence inflicted by and on teens. In addition to pinning culpability on school bullying, Marilyn Manson, metal bands and video games, a panicky public noted that the two shooters had been obsessed with bloody films like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Natural Born Killers.”
In June of that year, President Bill Clinton requested a Federal Trade Commission investigation into whether violent entertainment was being marketed to viewers under 17. (The report, issued in September, unsurprisingly concluded that it was.) Clinton also announced that movie theaters would crack down on teens under 17 sneaking into R-rated films by instituting a photo ID policy. “You shouldn’t have to worry about your G-rated kids getting into violent or suggestive R-rated movies,” Clinton said.
Though teen movies like “Heathers” don’t seem to have been credibly linked to the shooting, the fact that films with the same blackly comic, violent edge as “Natural Born Killers” were being made for and about teenagers rubbed some people the wrong way. For critics who took issue with films like “Idle Hands,” it wasn’t just the fact that they depicted violence in the classroom or the high school dance, but the manner of it: insufficiently somber, excessively fun. Johnson, in his Hartford Courant review, called “Idle Hands” “a rotten and tasteless piece of cinematic junk,” made “virtually unwatchable” due to the close proximity to Columbine. Roger Ebert wrote: “There is nothing funny about the situation in “Teaching Mrs. Tingle.”
These films gleefully blended comedy into the macabre, squeezing laughs from adolescents dealing with murder, sexual manipulation and abuse, and other traumatizing experiences. It’s an odd coincidence, in retrospect, that a boomlet of murderous teen comedies hit American theaters the very same year that Columbine became a symbolic signpost welcoming white, middle-class Americans to a world in which their kids were not safe at school. Though some ― like “Election” ― fared better with critics, this was certainly not an ideal time for a studio to release a bad or even mediocre dark comedy about teen carnage.
The effect appears to have been lasting, at least for Hollywood.
“We have seen far fewer depictions of delinquency after Columbine and the wave of school shootings in the late ’90s,” Shary told HuffPost. “If you’re going to make a teen film about a school shooting now, it’s going to be like ‘Elephant,’” said Driscoll, referring to the 2003 drama. “It’s going to be an exploration of how this happens.” Movies in the mold of “Idle Hands” haven’t seemed like a smart investment in the post-Columbine years, especially as deadly mass shootings have become a tragically mundane occurrence.
Witness the travails of Paramount’s “Heathers” TV reboot, originally slated to premiere in March 2018. It was postponed after the horrifying shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead that February. In June, Paramount dropped the show, having been stymied in its plan for a July premiere date, according to The Hollywood Reporter, by a shooting at Houston-area Santa Fe High School in which eight students and two teachers died.
“The combination of a high school show with these very dark moments didn’t feel right,” Paramount executive Keith Cox told THR. In the fall, having failed to unload the show on another distributor, Paramount started to air a re-cut version of the season, only to pull several episodes after the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. The show whimpered its way from a splashy TV event to a series available to stream on Paramount’s website without ever fully making it to air.
The turn of the millennium brought other fresh hells ― most notably, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the dawning of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The world looked not simply corrupt and grotesque, as the antics of the Clinton era may have suggested, but mortally terrifying. Wringing laughs out of kids in peril may simply have struck too close to home, especially for their parents.
Not that dark themes have been expurgated from teen movies. Instead of exploring the trauma inflicted by conversion therapy through a blunt satire like “But I’m a Cheerleader,” sweetening the pill with a few laughs, contemporary filmmakers typically dive directly into the pain with moody dramas like “Boy Erased.” Though Driscoll emphasized that a well-done dark comedy on the topic could be made today, she suggested that “But I’m a Cheerleader” would seem “historically out of place” if created now, “just because the dominant narratives about adolescent sexuality have shifted.”
Shary argued that recent hits like “The Hate U Give,” “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” have shown that if twisted comedies are out, “realism is in.” The shift in pop cultural norms ― toward acceptance and understanding of racial, gender and size diversity, mental illness and neurodiversity, disability rights, and beyond ― has likely encouraged studios and creators to handle adolescent issues with a gentle, serious touch. Even light-hearted ’90s comedies look hard-edged compared to recent teen hits like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which lead with empathy and softness.
“Filmmakers are clearly reflecting youths’ interest in social tolerance, sexual exploration, intense friendships and realistic school struggles,” Shary said. “Unlike they’re given credit for, I think many youth today actually want to deal with life rather than escape it.”
It’s clear that the teenage predilection for irreverent, even morbid humor hasn’t entirely gone away. The shift has been in where they explore these interests. In 1999, the moral panic may have revolved around violence in the movies and metal music; now, it’s the online cesspools where adolescents snicker over fascist memes and flirt with sincerely embracing bigoted views.
It’s not just the teens or the political times that have changed. The film industry itself has undergone a tectonic shift since 1999.
“It used to be a truism in writing about the film industry that the adolescent was your core audience,” Driscoll said. “They weren’t the ones with the most money, but they were the ones who went back to the movies most often. Now that’s not really true in the same way. Now, [with] the expense of the movies and the scale of the movies, you need a family frame, first of all, where you get adults and children at the same time. It’s got to work for dates. It’s got to work for taking your kids in holidays.”
All-ages spectacles like superhero and sci-fi sagas often incorporate adolescent themes of rebellion and coming of age, she noted, but they’re not as tailored to the youth audience alone.
The old-style teen comedy blockbusters still pop up — “Easy A,” “Blockers” — and some are even gritty and angsty — “Jennifer’s Body,” “The Bling Ring.” But they’re no longer a standby for studios that can instead churn out another superhero reboot and rake in ticket sales from teens as well as their parents and older siblings. In a world where every major studio release needs to appeal to every demographic, teen-specific movies are no longer big business. And though it may be true, as Shary said, that “teens love sarcasm more than slapstick,” speaking specifically to that demographic’s rebellious, cynical sense of humor is a tricky proposition for studios that hope to sell tickets to those teens’ parents as well. The wilds of 4chan, conversely, need not adhere to family-oriented standards of taste.
The simplest explanation, of course, may be the best: Of all those dark teen comedies that premiered in 1999, none was a box office hit (perhaps excepting “Cruel Intentions,” which is arguably not a comedy). While the cheery “American Pie” and “She’s All That” were bonafide smashes, “Idle Hands,” with a budget of $25 million, grossed under $5 million domestically. “Jawbreaker,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “Go,” “Election” and “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” came closer to breaking even, but none could be termed a financial winner. Perhaps the post-Columbine anxiety dampened sales, or perhaps the genre is just better suited to producing cult favorites than smash hits. Even the iconic “Heathers,” released in the U.S. in 1989, grossed only a million dollars. Perhaps the industry didn’t even have to change, though it did. Cynical and bloody riffs on teen comedies were never the safest route to a massive payday.
And yet in 1999, studios were still taking chances on the genre. They may again. Driscoll and Shary agreed that, some permanent historical shifts aside, trends in teen entertainment tend to be cyclical. “There is a moment at the end of the ’90s where there’s a confluence of things that make that kind of dark teen film really successful,” Driscoll said, “but it’s not the first time that was the case and it won’t be the last.”
The late ’90s saw an era of adolescent filmgoer dominance come to a peak, the culmination of over a decade of fascination with the Hughes-style teen comedy and the end of a time when violence and nihilism in suburban schools could garner laughs from a broad audience. It’s not impossible to imagine that a similar cultural moment could return. However, it is difficult to envision a future when kids aren’t living with the Damoclean sword of massacre or apocalypse hovering overhead, a future when the adults that brought them into the world and who make movies for them aren’t gripped with guilt and tenderness at the thought of how vulnerable their babies are.
If that future ever comes, maybe we’ll be able to laugh at teens in peril the way we did in the ’90s.
“For the Love of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Getty
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the release year of “Heathers.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.