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In the Southwestern town of Darlington, Steven "Skipper" Todd, a twenty-three-year-old would-be songwriter, is the leader of the community's disillusioned, thrill-seeking teenagers. Unknown to the adolescents who idolize him, the arrogant, intelligent Skipper has murdered teenager Sue Ellen Mack and, with the help of friends Norma and Andy, has buried her body in the desert. While Skipper and his accomplices flee the scene, they pick up a hitchhiker, Billy Roy, a friend who has just been released from reform school. As Skipper drives Billy to town, Mrs. Mack reports her daughter's disappearance to the police, including Detective Shaw, but they maintain that Sue Ellen is just another runaway. Although Skipper brags to Billy that he is a "professional killer," the emotionally stunted Billy dismisses his claim. At a local club, numerous girls welcome Skipper, including Amata, a former classmate of Billy's to whom he is still attracted, although she is interested only in Skipper. Soon after, Skipper shows Billy his small house, at which he hosts parties and dispenses drugs. Skipper repeats his claim that he is a murderer then takes Billy to the retirement home run by his mother, from whom he demands his weekly allowance. Although Mrs. Todd urges her son to get a job and asks him to help out, he violently rejects the idea, as he hates how the elderly men there have been abandoned by their families. Mrs. Todd caustically reminds him that by taking money from her, he makes his living off the retirees, after which he leaves and takes Billy home. Although Billy's parents are glad to see him, he is embarrassed by their emotions and quickly leaves with Skipper. The philosophizing Skipper tells Billy that his parents are trapped with "stale dreams," but admits that his parents are no better, adding that present-day society is riddled with lying and selfishness. The pair then go to the swimming pool, a popular hangout, where Skipper tries to interest Amata in Billy. Skipper is intrigued by sixteen-year-old Roberta, a wealthy, cynical girl, but she initially refuses his attentions. Later, Skipper goes to Roberta's posh house, where she is alone with her younger sister, Jackie. Roberta taunts Skipper about his seduction of teenaged girls and states that she believes Mrs. Mack's claim that Skipper is responsible for Sue Ellen's disappearance. Despite her belligerence, Roberta is attracted to Skipper and he responds to her flirtatiousness. Soon after, Skipper is questioned by the police about Sue Ellen, and as he always does around authority figures, Skipper puts on an act of sincerity and politeness, although Shaw sees through his flattery. Skipper wins their verbal sparring match, however, when he realizes that the investigators are lying to him about Norma confessing her part in the crime. Without the evidence to hold him, the police are forced to let Skipper go, and soon after, he gets Amata to come to his house. After leaving Amata with Billy, Skipper takes Roberta to the desert to have sex, but her lackluster response and jibes about his lifestyle infuriate him. Returning to his home, Skipper forces Amata to take an incapacitating drug and orders Billy to have sex with her. Later, Skipper slips into Roberta's bedroom and attacks her. As he is raping her, Roberta submits, declaring her love for him. Later, Skipper and Roberta have become romantically involved, much to the dismay of both Norma, who still loves Skipper, and Mrs. Todd, who despairs that Roberta has a bad reputation. One afternoon, Skipper stops by the high school to pick up some girls and is berated for wasting his life by teacher Sam Goodman. At a party soon after, Skipper regales his friends with the tale of how he eluded the draft by tricking a military psychiatrist into believing that he was a homosexual with violent feelings toward women. Billy shows Skipper an engagement ring that he has bought for Amata, with whom he is obsessed even though she does not return his feelings. Skipper disparages Billy then grows enraged when a guest plays a recording of Skipper's song about murdering Sue Ellen. Upset by the song and Skipper's reaction, Roberta leaves, and when she quarrels with Skipper over his lack of ambition and affection, he declares that their relationship is over. Soon after, Skipper again encounters Sam, who dismisses him as the epitome of everything he claims to be rebelling against. Skipper is angered by Sam's accusations that he is more pathetic than the housewives he despises and, still upset, encourages a friend to take out Roberta, instructing his friend to take her to a prearranged location in the desert that night. In the desert, Skipper ambushes Roberta and slaps her, but in the heat of the moment, the couple reconciles. As they kiss, the rest of the gang arrives and commence to carouse, taking drugs, drinking and having sex. Jealous, Norma confronts Skipper, and Roberta overhears as they discuss Sue Ellen. Later, even though Roberta's parents have forbidden her to see Skipper, she arranges a date with him by pretending to go to the drive-in with Jackie. After sending Jackie off to see the movie, Roberta goes with Skipper to his house, where she asks him why he killed Sue Ellen. Skipper admits that he wanted to see what it felt like to murder someone, and that he wanted to exercise his power over the local teens. Crying, Roberta asks if he could kill her now that she knows about his crime, and Skipper, overwhelmed, strangles her to death. Jackie enters as Skipper is standing over Roberta's body, and Skipper kills her, too. The next day, Skipper picks up Billy, but before they can bury the bodies, they are abducted by two thugs and taken to Fred Reardon, a gangster and friend of Roberta's father. Reardon threatens Skipper, who lies, telling him that another boyfriend of Roberta's must be responsible for her disappearance. That night, Skipper takes Billy to the desert and forces him to help bury Roberta's and Jackie's bodies. Later, Billy, fearing that Skipper will harm Amata, continuously prowls the sidewalk in front of her house, terrifying her family. When they confront him, Billy confesses that he was trying to protect Amata from the murderous Skipper, and Skipper is soon arrested. Billy attempts to lead the police to the corpses but cannot find them, although the search attracts a huge crowd. When Skipper's lawyer counsels him to confess, Skipper refuses, but the lawyer states that with Skipper's acting abilities, he can claim that he was misled by drugs and will become a national hero and role model. Soon after, Skipper takes Shaw and the police to Roberta's and Jackie's bodies, and they are followed by a group of stunned teenagers and news photographers. Crushed that they have lost their leader, the adolescents panic and one boy asks, "What are we going to do without Skipper?"