Sick (2023)

Besides maybe the horny-old-biddies football comedy 80 For Brady being inexplicably set in 2017, the new straight-to-Peacock slasher Sick is likely to be the most conceptually bizarre period piece of the season.  The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but it is still ongoing, which makes screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s decision to set Sick in the early-pandemic days of Spring 2020 a little confusing, if not outright immoral.  COVID-themed horror that takes advantage of the pandemic’s of-the-moment novelty and finance-forgiving social isolation is now a three-year-old gimmick at this point, with early standouts like the excellent screenlife ghost story Host getting produced & released in the same timeframe when Sick is set.  So, why would Williamson bother stepping outside his highly successful slasher franchise Scream to dial the clock back to those early COVID days, when that’s already such an overcrowded market?  Apparently, it’s because he’s been itching to complain about people who are a little too zealous & militant about mask-wearing, social-distancing safety measures in public life, and he couldn’t be satisfied venting about it in a Facebook rant like every other Gen-X crank, so he made a feature film instead.

In its opening hour, Sick appears to take the ambient terror of COVID very seriously, likening it to the intangible menace of horrors like Final Destination, The Happening, and Skinamarink.  Again, this is a period piece set in the early wiping-down-your-groceries era of the pandemic, when coherent public understanding of how COVID spreads—let alone vaccines—had yet to formulate.  There’s an oppressive paranoia in all public life that’s distinct to that era, illustrated by how a single cough in a grocery store has all other shoppers shooting daggers in your direction.  The tension is instantly high, and the vibes are instantly bad, which is a great start for a lean, low-budget slasher with only 80 minutes of playtime.  It’s also a great excuse to isolate a slasher’s teens-in-peril victims, who plan to ride the pandemic out by self-quarantining in a cabin in the woods.  The knife-wielding killer who stalks them also comes pre-masked, as was the fashion (and legitimate safety precaution) of the time.  All of this COVID-based terror is cleverly considered, but once the killer’s face & motives are revealed, Williamson’s screenplay devolves from we’re-all-in-this-together societal camaraderie into bitchy “Some of you are taking this pandemic stuff a little too seriously” apathy, and all of the tension gives way to eyerolls & jerk-off motions.

As often as Williams is determined to step on rakes in the last few pages of his screenplay, a lot of Sick‘s faults are smoothed over by DTV action director John Hyams’s knack for bone-crunching impact & small-scale visual spectacle.  The novelty of COVID horror is fading, and the basic tropes of the home-invasion slasher are so familiar that Williamson made a name for himself mocking them in a meta-horror franchise nearly three decades ago, but Hyams manages to make Sick feel consistently thrilling & surprising from moment to moment.  Yes, we have already seen Jason Voorhees emerge from Crystal Lake as an unkillable ghoul, but have we ever seen him thrust his blade at victims from under the water, like a deadly-sharp Jaws fin?  Yes, we’ve already seen teens chased around a remote cabin after enjoying a few hand-rolled joints, but rarely with such creative, dynamic blocking & fight choreography – since most independent first-wave slashers of that ilk were made by youngsters who enjoyed a few beers & joints on-set themselves.  Honestly, Sick has all the hallmarks of a classic slasher: style, efficiency, brutality, novelty, and boneheaded reactionary politics that sour nearly all of those merits.  According to that scorecard, Hyams has acquitted himself, Williamson has embarrassed everyone and, as is always true, Jane Adams (whose role I won’t spoil) deserves better.

-Brandon Ledet

Sissy (2022)

I saw a good number of my favorite movies of the year (so far) at Overlook Film Fest in June, which is usually the case.  The programming at that annual horror festival is unmatched by any other local fest I can name, as long as you’re a fully committed genre nerd who doesn’t pay much attention to the Awards Prestige dramas of the fall.  It’s also condensed to a single weekend in early summer, which means it’s impossible for me to catch every movie I want to see in the program. So, I often spend the half-year after Overlook catching up with titles I missed during the festival (which almost invariably pop up on the streaming platform Shudder at one time or another).  Often, I feel validated in which movies I opted to skip at the fest (i.e., She Will), but every now and then there’s a fun little novelty like Sissy that I wish I had seen with a crowd.  It’s always hard to tell how much of an enthusiasm boost I’m giving to movies based on the horror-nerd fervor of the festival, but I do suspect that Sissy killed in the room at Overlook, and I would have loved to share in that joy.

In micro-subgenre terms, Sissy offers an Australian splatstick comedy version of the modern social media thriller. Let’s call it Heavenly Tweetures, Ingrid Goes Down Under, Aussies Aussies Aussies, whatever you like.  It references cult sitcom Kath & Kim in its opening minutes, so you immediately know that it’s filling an Australia-specific niche.  At the same time, its story of a “mental health” social media influencer who becomes a homicidal maniac when she reunites with her childhood bully is a fairly standard-issue template for its genre.  Sissy only Aussifies that template in its irreverent tone & practical-effects gore.  There’s a Dead Alive tinge to its head-crunching kills that makes for a good, goofy time even when the movie is at its most brutal.  That buoyancy seeps through its ironic Disney princess musical score, its Blood Brilliant Tampons™ visual jokes, and its adoring Love Island reality TV parodies; but it’s the gore gags I most would’ve wanted to experience with a crowd.  They’re delighfully vicious, and they’re ultimately what makes the movie special.

There really isn’t much to Sissy‘s social media satire that you can’t find elsewhere.  The titular killer’s addiction to the endorphin rush of notification chimes and her sociopathic ability to alternate between self-care rhetoric & spon-con abuse of her self-appointed position as a mental health authority are familiar to anyone who’s drawn to this kind of material.  I’d even argue that the other notable social media satire at this year’s Overlook, Deadstream, did a much better job of squeezing laughs out of that exact Youtuber brain-rot persona.  There’s a sincerity to Sissy‘s central drama that you won’t find in Deadstream, though, from its nostalgia for childhood BFF kinship to the anxiety-inducing horrors of joining an established adult friend group midstream.  If there’s any incisive social commentary to be found here, it might be in the #terminallyonline understanding of morality where everyone falls into one of two categories: “A Good Person” or “Cancelled.”  It’s when Sissy desperately, violently strikes out to avoid becoming “Cancelled” that the movie evolves into its ideal form: a flippantly funny slasher, not a thoughtful social treatise.

If watching a mental wellness YouTuber become Jokerfied at the first threat of getting cancelled appeals to you, Sissy is a hoot.  That premise is very appealing to me, so I’m not sure why I didn’t prioritize it at Overlook the way I did with Deadstream.  Frankly, I should be cancelled for the offense.

-Brandon Ledet

Valentine (2001)

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that I like to talk about Scream. Like, a lot. Scre4m was my 59th favorite movie of the 2010s, I mentioned the franchise nine times in Part II of my favorite horror movies by year list, and I talked about how Sidney Prescott is my favorite final girl in my review of 5cream. I’ve mentioned it on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast too many times to count, but in our Cherry Falls episode in particular, we talked about the 4-5 year glut of what I like to call “the post-Scream slashers,” which broadly fall into three categories: 

  • Movies that copied Scream‘s self-awareness and setting while adapting and updating classic horror: The Faculty as Invasion of the Body Snatchers – in a high school! Disturbing Behavior is The Stepford Wives – in a high school! Joy Ride is The Hitcher – on a road trip home from college (sorta)!
  • Movies that didn’t seem to understand that what made Scream different was how it commented upon the genre, and so simply copied the setting, the teen cast, the shadowy killer with an inexpensive outfit, and the non-supernatural horror, and just made slasher flicks with high school (and occasionally college) students being tracked down by someone on a mundane vengeance spree: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and, of course, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
  • Movies that copied the teens-in-danger trope but didn’t bother to keep it grounded and instead went all-in on the supernatural, like Final Destination and Jeepers Creepers. 

Of course, we cited Cherry Falls as the anti-Scream (and if you want more details, you can listen to the episode), but there was one movie that was accidentally left off of that list, and definitely deserves to be mentioned: Valentine, directed by Urban Legend-helmer Jamie Blanks. I won’t call myself an Urban Legend apologist because that would imply the movie needs to apologize for something (other than the presence of Jared Leto), but I will say that I find it much more entertaining that the critical consensus does, and it’s not just because Loretta Devine is divine. I always wondered if Valentine, which has the prestige of being based on a novel like I Know… and Killing Mr. Griffin, was really as bad as its reputation lets on. It breaks my heart to tell you that, unfortunately, Valentine isn’t a bad movie, it’s just … only 66.7% of a great movie. I don’t know if a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor (as infamously happened with Disturbing Behavior, which also feels similarly disjointed) or what, but man, I’ve rarely seen a movie that feels like so much of it is missing, and I’ve seen On the Silver Globe

There’s really no other way to talk about why without getting into the entire film, so spoilers ahead, as much as something that was in theaters before 9/11 can be spoiled. 

The film opens with a promising, frenetically cut scene in a middle school Valentine’s dance in 1988, as pipsqueak Jeremy Melton (Joel Palmer) asks five different girls to dance with him: Shelley, Lily, Paige, Kate, and Dorothy. The first three are rude and cruel in the way that children often are, while Kate rejects Jeremy softly with a “maybe in a little while” and Dorothy, who is pudgier than the other girls, accepts his advances. The two of them kiss beneath the bleachers but are discovered by a pack of bullies, who mock them. Dorothy, embarrassed, quickly agrees when the bullies joke about the sixty-pound “pervert” Jeremy “attacking” her, and the bullies pour red punch over him like he’s Carrie White at the prom before stripping him out of his wet clothes and beating him up, while several of the students who are looking on wear uncanny Cupid/cherub masks . Thirteen years later, Shelley (Katherine Heigl, post-Bride of Chucky and right in the middle of Roswell) is a medical student who, after a terrible first date with a man named Jason Marquette (Adam Harrington) who continuously refers to himself in the third person and makes Shelley pay for her portion of the dinner once he realizes she’s not going to sleep with him, is pulling a midnight study session involving an autopsy.  After a jump scare, she receives a Valentine’s card with a macabre inscription before being murdered by the Cupid-masked killer. 

Elsewhere, Paige (Denise Richards) drags Kate (Marley Shelton) to a speed dating event, despite the fact that Kate hasn’t broken things off with boyfriend Adam (David Boreanaz), who is noted to have a drinking problem, hence the two of them being on the outs. they receive news of Shelley’s death and the two women, along with Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) and the now-svelte Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), meet the detective investigating the murder, Vaughn (Fulvio Cecere). Each begins to receive creepy notes and valentines signed “J.M.,” up to and including a box of chocolates filled with maggots, and we also meet our cavalcade of other love interests/ineffective red herrings: Lily’s boyfriend Max, a video media artist who has built a maze of images of disembodied mouths and sexy torsos talking about love and sex and whatever (no one in the movie seems to like it; I think it’s terribly pretentious but I would also go and have a very good time, for what it’s worth); Dorothy’s new boyfriend Campbell, who’s wormed his way into a guest room at the giant mansion her father owns and keeps talking about NFTs his new start-up and how his money is all tied up therein; Brian, a hot guy that Kate was starting to connect with at speed dating before Paige stole him away; and Gary, Kate’s creepy neighbor, who perpetually pitches unwelcome woo at her in sentences that rhyme with her name and whom she suspects of stealing her underwear in the laundry room. 

The police remain focused on trying to locate Jason Marquette because of the “J.M.” thing and that he was the last person to see Shelley alive. There’s also a subplot about Ruthie (Hedy Burress), a woman who shows up and accuses Campbell of having bled her bank account and warning Dorothy that she’s probably being used for the same scam. The surviving women discuss whether it’s possible that any of the men in their lives could actually be Jeremy Melton, all grown up after hitting the gym and possibly getting plastic surgery, throwing around accusations and various levels of cattiness that reflect deep, unspoken grievances from childhood. Dorothy even admits to having falsely accused Jeremy, which led to him being sent to a reform school, which led to juvenile hall and so on, before he dropped off of the map. Leading up to the climactic house party at Dorothy’s, most of these are whittled away as characters are murdered: the Cupid killer shoots Lily with arrows at Max’s show (her disappearance is unremarked upon by her friends as her having simply gone on her planned business trip), Gary is discovered in Kate’s bedroom trying on her underwear by Cupid and is bludgeoned with an iron, Campbell gets an axe to the back while relighting the pilot light at Dorothy’s, etc., and Ruthie is later killed shortly after discovering his body. It’s also worth noting that in most of these scenes, the Cupid mask is seen bleeding from its right nostril, just as Jeremy did at the dance all those years ago. People leave the party in droves following a power outage that results from the method by which Cupid kills Paige—in the film’s most memorable scene, which we’ll come back to—and when Kate tries to call Lieutenant Vaughn, she discovers his corpse along with a note that she had earlier given to Adam, cementing that he’s Jeremy, come round at last to get his revenge. She goes back to the house, where Adam behaves creepily but could also just be talking about falling off of the wagon, and Kate then fights Cupid, who is unmasked as … Dorothy. However, as Adam cradles her in his arms while they wait for the police to arrive, his nose is bleeding, before we cut to credits. 

There’s a lot that’s fun and good here, but I’m more fascinated by what isn’t here than what is. Just to start us off with a visual example, one of the men that Kate meets on the speed date is a smiling goon who’s too awkward to work up the nerve to actually say something to her: 

After fifty minutes, this guy shows up again, standing in the stairwell behind Paige when she comes downstairs at Dorothy’s party: 

That’s far too long between scenes for a red herring character to appear and be effective, and so little attention is drawn to him in this second appearance. It’s hard to explain but it just makes it feel like there was or should have been an intervening scene in the film’s second act, where he reappeared briefly and the film could have hinted that he was Jeremy, but it’s simply not present. In fact, there are several large group shots at Max’s art exhibition where it would make perfect sense for him to appear in the background, but I went back and watched that sequence in its entirety and he doesn’t appear in any of the crowd shots, foregrounded or otherwise; it almost makes more sense that he did appear here and was cut. 

And that’s not the only thing that’s narratively unfulfilling or otherwise doesn’t make sense in the language of film. Cameron is one of the film’s more involved red herrings, and he’s used more effectively than some of the others as well given that he is clearly up to no good, but it’s merely criminal, not homicidal.  Unfortunately, however, he is killed mere moments after we’re given the biggest hints that he might be the killer: he is unable to sexually perform for Dorothy, indicating that he’s not as into her as his cover story requires, then he gives her a necklace with a cherubic Cupid on it as a Valentine’s/apology gift, and then he goes down to one of the house’s spa areas and unsuccessfully tries to transfer her father’s money over the phone while scratching at the right side of his nose in agitation. This would be really effective if there were a scene or two in between them that left the house, creating some tension about whether Dorothy was safe or not, then cut back to Cameron trying to transfer funds. To digress for a moment, when Vaughn questions the women about boyfriends who might be behind the scary valentines and such, Kate claims that Adam simply can’t be Jeremy since she’s known him for a couple of years and even rattles off a series of facts about where he’s from and what his parents do for a living. It’s not my practice to review the movie I wish we were presented with or give feedback like this very often (I don’t never have some armchair directing feedback, but it’s not common), but this film almost begs for it, especially because the gaps are conspicuous in their absence; it’s not just that there’s something ephemeral that’s “missing,” it’s like there’s a specific shape that’s been cut out, like when a cartoon character leaves their outline after running through a wall. Right here is the perfect place for a scene where Kate, her certainty about Adam shaken, should have tried to do a little digging about Adam’s past; maybe she’s never actually met these parents and she casually asks Adam about them in a way that makes him react oddly, or she tries to look up the law firm where his mother works only to discover it doesn’t exist or contact the school where Adam’s father supposedly works only to learn there’s no “Mr. Carr” teaching there. Instead, we get two back-to-back scenes (six minutes of screentime) with Cameron and Dorothy in which no tension is built. This is pretty basic stuff, where the audience leaves one scene now assured that Cameron is the killer, then they have that determination undermined by Adam’s behavior or the discovery of lies in his personal history. 

Let’s talk about Scream for a second. I haven’t read the book on which it was based in its entirety, only the first two chapters that are available on certain websites as a preview, but there are enough differences in what I read versus what I saw to say that there were major revisions: Kate’s character is named Jill and is a mystery writer, Paige is called Tara and is an actress, and it is Adam’s character, called Nate here, who is the artist, not Max to bring the film more in line with the Scream narrative. The book opens just after the killer has committed his first revenge murder, and it happened in a bedroom, not a medical school morgue like in the film. The first victim in the novel is already dead at the time of the first line, but Valentine the film goes out of its way to evoke the opening of Scream instead, spending a lot of time with a character getting to know her before she’s killed, and utilizing one of the bigger names in the cast for this scene for shock value. Heigl didn’t have the superstar power that Knocked Up and Grey’s Anatomy would give her in the coming years and certainly wasn’t as famous as Drew Barrymore, but she was one of the big leads in a show that was aimed at and popular with the film’s demographic, and the ongoing staying power of Wish Upon a Star says a lot about how effectively it lodged itself in viewers’ minds. As in Scream, there is police involvement, and the primary red herring (Jason Marquette/Cotton Mather) is arrested for a time while the killings continue unabated, but the killer covers his tracks sufficiently that no one realizes this. And, just like Scream, the movie ends with a giant house party, and it’s this that I want to focus on for a minute. 

Dorothy’s big Valentine’s Day house party takes up far, far too much of this film’s runtime. Valentine is 93 minutes without credits, and the last 35 minutes, nearly 40% of the run time, all take place during this party. Worse that that, remember when I mentioned that nothing happens between the scene with Cameron acting suspiciously with his limp dick and Cupid necklace and the scene of him trying to defraud Dorothy’s father’s bank and then getting murdered? Nothing happens between those two scenes and the party, meaning that we spend the last 41 minutes of the movie at Dorothy’s house. The only time we leave there is when there is a quick cutaway to Lt. Vaughn calling Kate from his car to tell her that Jason Marquette was released and that he might show up at the party. Now, compare this to Scream, which likewise spent a huge part of its runtime (48 minutes) in its final act house party, but we don’t spend that entire time in Stu’s house. There are memorable scenes in the news van and down the road where Gale and Dewey take a walk that function to break up the visual monotony of spending too much screen time in one location. Once again, the outline of something missing is just as present in the narrative as the things that are actually there. To give credit where it’s due, this is where the film’s most interesting kill happens, wherein the killer manages to trap Paige in the hot tub under a clear plastic cover and starts drilling holes in it as she swims around evading the drill bit while having to keep her mouth and nose in the very small space between the cover and the water. It lasts longer than many of the other killing sequences (more on that below) and is very tense, unlike many of the others. 

One of the major things that Valentine, like a lot of Scream imitators, is missing is the characters’ attempts to fight back and survive, which often makes these scenes very brief and lacking in audience investment. In the original, Casey Beckett tries to flee the house and call for help from her parents and Tatum throws bottles of beer at Ghostface and fights for her life before getting stuck in the garage door that breaks her back; in Scream 2, which was released four years before Valentine, Maureen begs the audience to realize she’s not acting and help her, and Cici manages to do some real damage to Ghostface before being thrown off of the sorority house’s roof. And of course, in all of them, Gale and Sidney are pretty banged up at the end because they are badasses who refuse to die. Here, the murders are brief and, insofar as the characters have any agency at all, they mostly just try to hide (ineffectively): Shelley’s is the closest to a real attempt to fight back, but she still ends up hiding in a body bag, which is where the killer finds her; creepy Gary is beaten to death while cowering, moments after being discovered in Kate’s apartment by the killer and is never mentioned again; Lily gets shot to death by arrows from a distance and then falls down the center of a stairwell into a dumpster; Campbell takes an axe to the spine without ever seeing the killer coming for him. I actually saw more of this movie while testing this: from first arrow wound to dumpster fall, Lily’s death takes up 31 seconds of screen time. In comparison, Tatum’s death scene in Scream, from the moment she sees Ghostface to the moment her spine cracks, is 94 seconds, and that’s not counting the 90 seconds before that where she enters the spooky garage, struggles with the beers, and finds herself locked out of the house while tension rises. What’s more, this is one of the few areas in the movie where it feels like the failure is in the film itself, not the editing or the ostentatiously absent footage; there’s nothing missing here, the scenes simply aren’t that good. I also want to point out that some of the murders happen offscreen and it seems like it’s an actual stylistic choice, like Lt. Vaughn’s death being kept secret until Kate discovers his body, while some threads are simply left hanging, like Brian being left tied to the bed by Paige, implying that he might still be upstairs blindfolded and naked while the climax of the movie takes place. 

One thing that Valentine has that Scream doesn’t is opening credits. Stick with me here! Valentine‘s credits are intercut with its opening scene, and like I mentioned earlier, that opening is very effective and the film’s intersplicing of it all means that Valentine can have its cake and eat it, too, having old school long credits but making them interesting enough that the audience doesn’t mind. Unfortunately, this is also the film’s drawback, as the format of the titles spoils who the killer is. David Boreanaz was four years into playing his iconic role of Angel, two seasons of which were on his own show as the title character. That may have only made him a household name in households that watched Buffy, but for those households which also tolerated network series about quirky not-quite-a-cop investigators, his—wait, this math can’t be right. 245 episodes over 12 seasons? Ok, but jeezum petes—uh so yeah, Boreanaz’s turn as Booth on over a decade of Fox’s Bones also contributed to his fame. His is also the only man’s name in the movie that appears on its own during the credits. Richards is credited first, then Boreanaz, then Shelton, Capshaw, and “with” Heigl. The other men are listed in the opening, but always with other names, so you, the audience member who presumably knows who Boreanaz is, are subtly already clued in that he will be the killer, because if it’s not him, who would it be? Surely not one of these other comparative no-names (no offense), most of which, again, don’t effectively function as red herrings because they appear too infrequently. Gary is in two scenes; Brian is in two scenes. Every red herring is only 2/3 of the way there for them to work. The grinning goober who couldn’t talk at the speed dating event is only in two scenes, and all of it feels like a lot of the middle was cut out, where we would get that second scene before the final act that would lead us to believe that any one of them might be the masked killer. There’s even the tiniest bit of a hint that Vaughn might be the killer, since he’s not present at Max’s gallery opening but does mention that he’s seen Max’s work, as well as the sinister way that he isolates Paige and is a creepy lecher about it. Instead, because something is missing about the actual language of film, the viewer spends the whole rest of the movie waiting for the other shoe to drop and Adam to be unmasked as Jeremy. Imagine if Scream had opening credits and Skeet Ulrich was listed second while the rest of the male cast, including David Arquette and Jamie Kennedy, were relegated to tenth and eleventh billing; there would never be a moment of mystery, and there isn’t here, either. 

But that’s just it. The biggest empty hole that’s identifiable here is the lack of a second killer. That’s a foundational part of what made Scream work and is also present in its sequels (other than Scream 3, where it was cut at the last minute) but not its imitators (other than I Still Know…, which almost makes it the better of the two). Except—hear me out here—I think that Valentine did have a second killer, and the removal of that was one of the linchpins that made the rest of the story work. I mentioned before that the Cupid mask has nosebleeds, just like Jeremy, but it doesn’t happen every time. After Kate struggles with the Cupid-masked killer, Adam suddenly appears and kills them, with the unmasking revealing that Dorothy was under there. The Adam-is-Jeremy bloody nose reveal would have us believe that this was all part of Adam’s plan, that he somehow attacked Kate as Cupid and then dressed the disabled Dorothy (perhaps crushing her windpipe so that she couldn’t call out to Kate and reveal the deception) as Cupid so that he could then shoot Dorothy, have her revealed as the killer, and then get back together with Kate with no one to interfere and his vengeance sated. But what if that’s not what was supposed to happen? What if Dorothy and Adam were supposed to be in on it together. Some parts of the film actually make more sense this way, as Adam seems ideologically driven but Dorothy also harbors a lot of bitterness about being the “fat girl” of the group when they were younger. Further, there are some kills that, due to the editing, only make sense if this is the case, and it feels like the fact that the Cupid mask only bleeds sometimes is supposed to be a clue to this reveal, and that re-viewings of the movie with that in mind would reveal who was behind the mask during certain scenes. Adam wants to kill the women who spurned him, but has no reason to kill Cameron, and it’s notable that we don’t see the mask bleed during that scene, and that the timeline would seem to indicate that, since this was a few hours before Dorothy’s party, it was happening at roughly the same time that Adam was across town giving Kate her lollipop valentine. Although Dorothy is the reason that Jeremy went away and took a downward turn, it’s not a completely unrealistic twist that her bitterness toward her richer, smarter, prettier (in her eyes) friends led her to team up with Jeremy to take them down, only for him to fall for Kate and end up betraying her in order to have her be the scapegoat and let him have his dream future with Kate. 

However, for whatever reason, that ending didn’t sit well with test audiences, or perhaps studio executives. Maybe someone thought it was a little dated and fatphobic (which it would have been) and decided to course correct too late to fill in the gaps with it removed. Or maybe this is just a bad movie and I’m too invested in the parts of it that are good to let it go at that and insist on finding ways to close loopholes and fix bad editing with my projected fix-fic to turn this into a better film. But I don’t think so. I think that this was a movie with great promise that fell apart under its own weight with too much supporting material removed, even if I’m wrong about Dorothy. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pearl (2022)

The biggest drawback of Ti West’s retro-porno slasher X was its 70s grindhouse aesthetic, which has been ground into the dirt since at least as far back as when Rob Zombie started making movies in the aughts.  X‘s biggest asset was the “X-factor appeal” of its star, Mia Goth, who has by now proven that she can do Anything.  As its rushed-to-market prequel, then, Pearl is a major improvement on X by default, since it switches up its eras of pastiche for something that still has some novelty left in it, and it feeds Goth as much scenery as she wants to devour.  Pearl plays with a tongue-in-cheek Technicolor melodrama aesthetic that you can usually only find in a Todd Haynes or John Waters film, not an axe-murder slasher.  Stylistically, it most reminded me of the pop art farmland comedy Big Top Pee-wee, which may not be as widely beloved as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but at least hasn’t been mined dry for direct inspiration in horror circles.  More importantly, it centers Goth as both an electric screen presence and as a subversive creative voice, landing her a co-writing credit alongside West.  Goth is a singing, dancing, head-smashing entertainment machine, mapping out the full scope of her range between demonic shrieks and barnburner Bergman monologues.  Much like X, the movie wouldn’t be much without her, but in this case she’s burned into practically every frame, sharing much less screentime with the poor collaborators who have to shine beside her.

I’m not sure Pearl benefits much from its connections to X thematically, even if it couldn’t exist without it financially.  There is one scene in which the underground stag film industry of the 1910s is evoked to echo the 70s porno-shoot setting of X, but it feels shoehorned in out of obligation.  When Pearl botches a chorus-line dance audition, she isn’t recruited to shoot loops. Instead, she briefly watches a stag reel from the safe distance of a projection booth.  Likewise, the film is light on kills, saving Pearl’s murderous rampage for the final act, when West starts to backslide into his default 70s art horror aesthetics, forgetting the assignment at hand.  The film most excels as a psychobiddy origin story, setting up the old-age resentments and pent-up hedonism the character doesn’t fully get to act on until a half-century later.  We watch Pearl train her pet, people-chomping gator; we revisit the familiar layout of the farm where she spends her entire unfulfilling life; and we watch her get acquainted with the axes & adultery she eventually wields as deadly weapons.  In a lot of ways, all of that self-referential lore-seeding weighs the movie down, needlessly stretching its runtime into the triple digits.  Every minute we get to gaze at Goth doing her thing is time well spent, though, and she makes the most of X‘s leftover character details & production funds, scraping together the rare prequel that exceeds its original.

As lukewarm as I am on X, I do appreciate Ti West’s old-timey huckster spirit in turning it into an Event Film out of sheer force of will.  While a lot of audiences have gotten hung up on Pearl‘s visual references to Douglas Sirk & The Wizard of Oz, artist Shawn Mansfield really got to the heart of the picture with the fan-art poster below, framing Pearl as a spiritual successor to William Castle’s axe-murder trashterpiece Strait-Jacket.  West is dabbling in some old-fashioned William Castle razzle-dazzle with this series, relying on marketing stunts to turn X into A Thing before audiences had time to react to it genuinely.  Pearl was announced in the end credits of X, filmed on its leftover sets and production funds.  Likewise, the 80s porn-scene follow-up MaXXXine was announced during the end credits scroll for Pearl.  Usually, that kind of manufactured cult-classic appeal would annoy me, but here it recalls a carnival barker, pro-wrestling promoter tradition in always promising the next attraction that feels very much in the spirit of old school schlockteurs like William Castle, David Friedman, and Roger Corman.  On its own, Pearl could’ve been leaner, zippier, and nastier, but it’s still a hoot overall.  As part of an ongoing porno-slasher trilogy, it’s likely to be the one that maintains the most novelty, since it’s set in an era that hasn’t been as overmined as the 70s & 80s in recent horror trends.  I like what West is going for here, and so far the payoffs are trending upwards.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Cherry Falls (2000)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the post-Scream teen slasher Cherry Falls (2000), starring a very gothy Brittany Murphy.

00:00 Welcome

00:42 Psycho Ape! (2020)
02:55 X (2022)
07:17 RRR (2022)
11:50 Bridgerton
15:33 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
17:10 Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
18:49 Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)
19:36 What Happened to Monday? (2017)
21:42 Scream (1996)

29:47 Cherry Falls (2000)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Between the 2018 version of Halloween, last year’s revision of Candyman, and this year’s update to Scream, the legacy sequel appears to be the hottest trend in mainstream horror filmmaking.  Rebooting iconic horror IP without disregarding the continuity of the original source material is the exact kind of “safe bet” investment Hollywood Money Men love. It simultaneously drags old customers back to the theater with a nostalgia magnet while luring in fresh-faced Zoomers with allowance money to burn.  Tobe Hooper’s grimy cannibal classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absurdly ill-fitting candidate for the legacy sequel treatment, though, no matter how tempting it must be to cash in on its decades of name-recognition.  Nine films into the franchise, there’s still no clear continuity in either story or tone across the various Texas Chainsaw sequels & reboots.  Each individual entry is a chaotic outlier with no solid tether to the rest of the series beyond the chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface.  It’s also been almost a half-century since the Tobe Hooper original, which means that Leatherface and his first-one-that-got-away “final” girl would easily be pushing 70 years old in a modern-day sequel.  And that’s to say nothing of the tastelessness of dragging Sally back into Leatherface’s chow zone after the original actor who played her, Marilyn Burns, died in 2014.  The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre recasts Olwen Fouéré (of Mandy notoriety) in the Sally role, feigning to give her the same long-awaited revenge mission Laurie Strode’s pursuing in the new Halloween cycle, only for that subplot to be treated as a callous joke with an abrupt, dismissive punchline.  That gag is poorly conceived, needlessly cruel, and ultimately just an excuse to participate in extratextual Online Discourse that has nothing to do with the movie’s central narrative – the exact three qualities that make the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a sickening hoot.

Besides the all-growed-up-final-girl revenge plot, another goofy hallmark of the legacy horror sequel is giving its youngsters in peril jobs that did not exist when the series originated.  Both the new Halloween and the new Slumber Party Massacre go the obvious route, unleashing The Shape & The Driller Killer to attack true crime podcasters who treat their heyday slayings as entertainment #content.  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes the long way, staging a showdown between Leatherface and wealthy social media Influencers who want to transform his small Texas town into a big-city Liberal utopia – a rural cult for terminally online Zoomers.  It’s a ludicrous premise, one the film only uses an excuse to directly comment on hot topics like cancel culture, gentrification, “late-stage Capitalism”, school shootings, and the Confederate flag.  Leatherface’s new crop of victims aren’t characters so much as they’re pre-loaded Twitter talking points (even with Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher doing her damnedest to perform her Culture War discourse with a genuine pathos as the new final girl).  Worse yet, the film decidedly falls on the Right-Wing side of that cultural divide, taking the positions that the Confederate flag is more a symbol of heritage than of racism, that automatic assault rifles are necessary to survival, and that today’s socially progressive youth are inherently weaker & more superficial than the rural townies they condescend to as small-minded bigots.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre only floods its small Texas town with big-city Influencers as targets for Leatherface’s chainsaw, but every single time it’s obliged to give their presence a narrative purpose, it defaults to complaining that kids today are whiny Liberal wimps – a sentiment that only gets queasier the longer it fixates on their ritualistic disemboweling once the slaughter begins.

So, to recap: the teens are annoying, the dialogue is clumsy, the themes are reactionary, and it’s all a flimsy excuse to stage 80 minutes of for-its-own-sake hyperviolence.  By those metrics, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty faithful to slasher tradition, which has never had a functional moral compass, nor a reliable system of quality control.  I’d even go as far as to call it a great slasher, despite its atrocious politics.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’22 is careless when it comes to its characters, its debt to its source material’s legacy, and its broader cultural commentary, but it pours a lot of careful consideration into the craft of its kill scenes.  And since the movie is mostly kill scenes, it mostly gets away with it.  Leatherface’s chainsaw rips into a party bus packed with panicked social media addicts, tears townie challengers to chunks, and chases our new final girl through crawl space floorboards like an upside-down shark’s fin.  The violence is constant and constantly surprising, drowning the screen in so much goopy stage blood that you can hardly squint past it to see the rotten Conservative politics blurring up the background.  For better or worse, that gore-hound payoff will seal this movie’s legacy.  There will be vocal backlash against its reactionary Culture War politics for about a decade, then it’s going to be gradually reclaimed as one of the better entries in the Texas Chainsaw franchise as those talking points become 2020s kitsch.  Certainly, there are first-wave slashers from the 1980s with a more overtly bigoted, misanthropic worldview that have been reclaimed as cult classics with retrograde politics that are “of their time.”  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is of our time in the ugliest, most gruesome way possible.  It will similarly age gracefully as an adorable time capsule of our worst present-day filmmaking & cultural impulses.  All you can really do in the meantime is enjoy the novelty of the individual chainsaw kills, of which there are plenty to indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

To my shame, I am not yet equipped to watch the new Scream sequel that just hit theaters, because I haven’t yet seen most of the films in that franchise (despite the 1996 original being a major touchstone of my teen years).  I plan on correcting that major horror-nerd blind spot later this year, but in the meantime, I have a ton of pent-up teen-slasher energy and nowhere to direct it.  Thankfully, the SyFy Channel has offered a cheaper, at-home alternative to that theatrical Hollywood offering, as they often do.  2021’s Slumber Party Massacre is a SyFy Channel remake of the classic semi-feminist slasher The Slumber Party Massacre and, honestly, an improvement on the 1982 original.  Although I was largely mixed on the first Slumber Party Massacre film, I have seen every entry in that series, and I’m generally a big fan (especially of the crazed, MTV-inspired wet nightmare Slumber Party Massacre II).  Feminist author Rita Mae Brown wrote The Slumber Party Massacre to be an academically critical parody of the leering teen-slasher genre, but the Roger Corman production machine softened its satirical edges beyond the point of recognition, leaving it little room to stand out in a crowded field of Halloween knockoffs.  Four decades later, metatextual post-modern commentary on horror tropes is much easier to get greenlit without producers’ interference (thanks largely to the popularity of Scream), so the Slumber Party Massacre remake got a chance to double back and do things right.  The only shame is that it’s working on a SyFy Channel scale & budget, when it should at least have been afforded the same resources & platform as the similarly minded 2019 remake of Black Christmas – a film it bests at its own game.

Slumber Party Massacre 2.0 worryingly opens with a straight-faced reenactment of the tropiest 80s slasher you can imagine, complete with girls dancing in skimpy pajamas and the hyper-phallic Driller Killer from the original series.  Besides the final girl archetype disarming the killer’s drill with a soup can, there isn’t much to the cold open that telegraphs how silly & self-aware the film will quickly become.  Decades after that initial sleepover massacre, a new crop of teen girls arrive in the same small town and repeat the same ritualistic slasher-victim tropes: car engine troubles, pajama dance parties, giggling over pizza, the works.  Only, they’re consciously re-enacting this ritual to bait the Driller Killer to their cabin so they can collectively stab & bludgeon him to death as an act of vigilante justice.  The only trouble is that there’s a nearby cabin of young gym-body hunks who are having a genuine sleepover slumber party (complete with an abs-out pillow fight), who might now be in danger of the killer’s phallic drill.  While the 1982 Slumber Party Massacre was too subtle for its own producers to catch onto what film they were making, the 2021 version is so over-the-top and blatant in its satire that you have to be awed by its audacity.  Once the pro-active vigilantism of its would-be teen victims is exposed, the movie has a blast openly riffing on subjects as widely varied as voyeurism, queer-bating, slut-shaming, and the wide cultural brain rot of true crime podcasts.  It’s obviously not as grimy nor as authentically bizarre as the original Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, but I still really enjoyed its self-aware quirks & post-modern pranks on slasher tradition.

There’s nothing especially original about Slumber Party Massacre‘s post-modern genre commentary, but originality is just about the last thing I expect out of SyFy Channel mockbusters anyway.  What’s really exciting & novel here is that the film announces the arrival of the very first SyFy Channel auteur.  Director Danishka Esterhazy is also responsible for the 2019 Banana Splits movie, another shockingly delightful horror-comedy revamp of a long-dead cultural curio.  Both films are irreverently self-aware & gory in the exact same way, and Esterhazy deserves major accolades for managing to establish a recognizable creative voice in a set-em-up-knock-em-down filmmaking environment that usually doesn’t have much of a discernible personality.  There are rigid limitations to what Esterhazy can achieve on the SyFy Channel playground, but her voice is at least cutting through more clearly than Rita Mae Brown’s did on a Corman set in the 1980s.  I’m looking forward to whatever self-aware genre prank she gets away with next—SyFy Channel Original or otherwise—even more than I’m looking forward to catching up with 5cream.

-Brandon Ledet

5cream (2022)

Every time there’s news about a new Batman, there’s a new wave of “[Actor] is my Batman” discourse (Kevin Conroy is mine, for the record). For me, a more important question is: Who’s your Final Girl? There are a lot of good contenders, but mine has always been Sidney Prescott, followed very closely by Nancy Thompson. I was so excited to hear about 5cream after it had been so long since Scream 4, and was eagerly looking forward to seeing it as if Sidney were actually an old friend of mine with whom I would be getting the chance to catch up. So, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it takes so long for her to show up here, which is further underlined by the fact that we never get to see the three main characters of this franchise reunite for, well, one last time. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) gets scenes with both Dewey (David Arquette) and Sidney (Neve Campbell), and Sidney and Dewey talk briefly on the phone, but the three of them are never on screen together. That’s kind of weird, right? 

It’s been twenty-five years since Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) killed seven people within a series of peculiar homicides that were modeled after murders in slasher films. In the decade and a half that followed, there were three copycat sprees: one based around the “rules” of sequels, another those rules pertaining to trilogies, and in 2011 at the height of remake mania, a murder bender pertaining to sequels, reboots, and the like. But it’s been a quiet ten years, and all of our favorite characters aren’t where we left them. Dewey and Gale split up and he’s living in a Woodsboro trailer park, mooning over Gale still as she hosts a NY-based morning show. Sidney’s as far as she can be from Colorado, living her best life, presumably, since she has no trouble going for a healthy jog without fear of being watched; and she even answers her phone when she gets a call from an unfamiliar number (I can tell you one thing, if I were Sidney Prescott, I would never have owned or answered a telephone any time after 2002). All of that changes when a young girl named Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in her home by Ghostface, and we’re introduced to our conceit for this time around. 

You see, Tara likes scary movies, but only “elevated horror”: things like It Follows, The VVitch, and Hereditary (her favorite, she says, as it’s a “meditation on grief and motherhood”). But Ghostface doesn’t want to talk about that; he’s more interested in what she knows about Stab, the film series within the film series that began life as a “ripped from the headlines” horror flick about the killings in the 1996 original, and which had, by Scream 4, bloated to a seven-movie franchise which had long ago stopped pretending to be based on true stories. Aligning with tradition, Tara is forced to participate under threat of violence to someone she cares about, and she gets through the first couple of questions but gets tripped up by the third. Just as Barrymore’s Casey Becker fumbled and said that Jason was the killer in Friday the 13th (it’s actually Mrs. Voorhees), Tara says that the killer in the original Stab was Billy Loomis, as it’s a trick question—she forgot about Stu. In a break with tradition, Tara actually survives this attack, if barely; this leads to the return of her older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) to Woodsboro, but as it turns out, that might have been the point. As it turns out, Tara and Sam have a connection to previous killings, and they’re not the only ones. Several people in Tara’s tight-knit group of friends are, as it turns out, with Heather Matarazzo returning for a cameo as Martha Meeks, Randy’s younger sister from Scream 3, now the mother of twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) with whom Tara is friends, as well as a reappearance of Judy Hicks (the always-welcome Marley Shelton), now sheriff of the town after having previously served as Dewey’s deputy in Scream 4, and her son Wes (Dylan Minnette) is also among their group. That’s not all, though, as we also have Amber (Mikey Madison), Tara’s best friend, as well as Chad’s girlfriend Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar). 

The biggest of the film’s flaws—beyond how little our legacy characters get to do and how late some of them appear in the screenplay (Gale doesn’t appear in person until nearly an hour in)—is that there are simply too many characters, and you can even see it in the poster. Consider the poster for the first Scream, which had five characters in total, including the three we would come to know as our principal characters in this series, but hyping up the appearance of Drew Barrymore, whose pre-titles murder is still the franchise’s defining moment. Then came Scream 2, which likewise limited its poster to five characters: the core three, Sidney’s new boyfriend, and (once again) the decoy lead who is killed off in the film’s opening. Scream 3‘s poster followed this trend with five characters, and then Scream 4 featured the first cast expansion to feature six: the three leads, and the would-be new Sidney, her boyfriend, and the new Randy Meeks. But the poster for this one has a full dozen people on it, and it’s just too many. 

I don’t want to be the one to complain that Kyle Gallner is here, since he was in both one of the most original horrors of the aughts and the most derivative remake of the same relevant time period (Jennifer’s Body and the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, respectively), so he feels like a genre acknowledgement that belongs here; but he’s also the most frivolous presence, existing only to provide cannon fodder for Ghostface and cement the theory that the killers are targeting people connected to the original killings when it’s revealed that he’s the son of Stu’s (I believe) heretofore unmentioned sister. When Dewey recounts “three attacks” at the 30-minute mark, I legitimately turned to my friend and asked if there was an assault I was forgetting other than Tara’s attack and “the one at the hospital,” and had to be reminded that he had been there at all. Liv’s also the worst kind of red herring, in that though it’s true that she always seems to be conveniently elsewhere when a killing occurs, she also is such a non-presence that when she’s not on screen; you forget that she exists. It is a bit of a narrative catch-22, though, since there need to be killings of people outside of this friend group to provide clues about the killer’s selection process, but if you change the story a bit and have, for instance, Dewey gathering potential victims who aren’t as familiar with one another to protect them from Ghostface, then you kinda lose the friend group Screamness of it all. And, despite all of that, the first two people I first and most immediately suspected, which is both satisfying and a little deflating. 

It may seem like I have a lot of complaints, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed this one. It vaults over Scream 3 handily and lands just behind Scream 4 in the rankings. The reinvention here may actually be mpre clever, but it doesn’t feel as clever. The opening of Scream 4 alone was a fun, bizarre ride that really shook things up to the point where you weren’t really sure what the rules were anymore. The motive of the killings is fantastic; we learn early on that the previous year saw the release of Stab, which is actually Stab 8 (get it?), and that fans hated it—and from what little of it we see, with good reason. Stab has become a cultural phenomenon in Scream‘s world, and that world has now entered the era of The Snyder Cut, wherein groups of fanboys feel that the media belongs to them, so they want to course correct back to the “original concept” by enacting a new series of murders in Woodsboro to inspire the Stab franchise to return to its roots. It’s not as clever as “movies made us do it,” but it’s just as cohesive, and allows for one of the killers to deliver great lines like “How can fandom be toxic?” while holding a bloody knife.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! (1978)

I love a cheap slasher.  There’s a grimy, D.I.Y. vibe to slashers that’s hard to find in horror genres that require more substantial budgets for special effects.  All you really need to make a barebones slasher is a few friends, a free weekend, case of beer, and a prop kitchen knife.  The bodycount murder-mystery template that most slashers follow provides just enough structure & purpose for what are otherwise hangout films, so that no-budget indies can somehow land regional, if not national distribution despite essentially being backyard movies.  Slashers don’t have to be especially cohesive or coherent to be worthwhile, since the draw of the genre is usually in the local, sub-professional quirks of their casts of victims.

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! pushes that disregard for coherence & cohesion past its breaking point.  As its more apt drive-in title Class Reunion Massacre suggests, it’s a loopy supernatural slasher set at a 10-year high school reunion, which is disrupted by a maniacal, possibly possessed priest.  The movie opens with an eerie shot of a fully clothed child emerging from underneath a lake with Terminator-level determination.  The mysterious child-demon coerces a local priest to kill unsuspecting alumni celebrating their class reunion, punishing them for the “sins” of adultery, alcoholism, and homosexual copulation.  The magical mechanics of that coercion remain a mystery, along with the origins of the lake-child and the priest’s connection to the class-reunion victims.  The result feels less like an actual movie than it feels like the dream you have after watching Prom Night.

The unexplained supernatural phenomena of The Redeemer establish an eerie mood before the film fully sinks into its slash-by-numbers formula, but they feel underdeveloped to the point of distraction & bafflement.  Disregarding the lake-child, the movie is basically about a Gene Parmesan style killer who wears a different generic disguise for each attack: priest robes, a clown mask, duck-hunter camo, etc.  Once you start trying to connect that killing spree to the priest’s extra thumb, his step-by-step tutorial of the face plaster process, his flamethrower-wielding puppet, and his supernatural child-boss, the whole thing unravels. All it really needed to do was set a maniacal preacher loose on victims he believed to be “sinners”, but instead it adds in a chaotic smattering of details from a more interesting movie that we’ll never get to see.

Regarding the local flavor of The Redeemer’s cast, there isn’t much to see here.  The film gets minor kudos for having multiple gay characters in its main roster, but it’s also a bodycount horror film so you can probably guess how that plays out.  Besides, the supernatural lake-child’s priest-hijack mission is too distracting for the central cast to stand out anyway.  There’s a wonderful sequence set in the preacher’s church, packed with candid shots of the locals in his congregation who fill the pews.  Otherwise, the movie doesn’t have much to offer except boredom, frustration, and bafflement.  It’s got an occasionally eerie mood and a few fun, scattered surprises, but it never really pulls itself together into anything solid.  I’d honestly be even more forgiving of those minor merits if it was just shots of drunk teens wielding a kitchen knife in the woods.  It’s almost worse that the movie teases more ambitious supernatural horror elements and then never does anything coherent with them.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s Someone Inside Your House (2021)

Thanksgiving was last week, and if your family is anything like mine, you probably heard the phrase “social justice” sneeringly used as an epithet as if we were talking about something as vile as omnipresent police brutality or human trafficking. Look in the mirror, reader, we made it through that! We are strong. Although you and I have managed to prevent having our brains completely rotted by propaganda, seeing the way that corporations can attempt to co-opt (whoops, sorry, I meant to say “address”) issues of social justice in their digestible products and mangle those concepts horribly gives a bit of insight into what those issues look like once they’ve filtered down to the level of the largely-unengaged (or propagandized) consumer. And it’s not great! 

Makani Young (Sydney Park) is the most recent addition to the group of outsiders at a high school in small town Nebraska, having transferred just a short time prior. Also in the group are: Makani’s best friend Alexandra Crisp (Asjha Cooper); Rodrigo Doran (Diego Josef), who has a mutual unspoken crush on Alexandra; and Zach Sandford (Dale Whibley), an archetypical stoner kid and the son of “Skipper” Sandford, a wealthy farmer with aims to control the whole town by purchasing foreclosed properties, including those that were home to the families of his son’s peers, and is engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle the local police force and set up his own privatized department in town. 

Also rounding out this group of outcasts is Darby (Jesse LaTourette), a trans and apparently gender non-confirming student whose hopes to get out of this small town mostly revolve around a NASA internship for which they have replied. As a side note, I’m using “they” here, but the film is never very explicit on this topic; a quick Google search for performer Jesse LaTourette returns results that describe LaTourette as an actress and which use she/her pronouns, while a search for that name with “trans” in the search line located this blog post which states that “a friend reached out and confirmed that Jesse LaTourette identifies as genderfluid, and uses any pronouns,” but I’m hewing on the safe side since I can’t corroborate that elsewhere. The half-assedness of the film’s inclusivity is manifest in the text: we the audience are never really told what Darby’s pronouns are; the only explicit mention of their gender comes when self-congratulatory student council president Katie (Sarah Dugdale) reads an excerpt from their college application essay, which begins with your typical “I didn’t really understand diversity/struggle until I met someone who was different from me” spiel. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty good piece of storytelling in the way that it demonstrates the tendency of white, cisgender people to not only co-opt non-white and non-cis narratives as their own but to do so for profit (or in this case, to get into college), but on the other, it amuses me that Netflix doesn’t see themselves reflected in this narratively vilified character. 

We don’t meet these characters right away, however. Taking a page from the Scream playbook, we have the film equivalent of a cold open here, as the school’s presumably teenaged quarterback Jackson Pace (the very twenty-eight-year-old Markian Tarasiuk) engages in some telephonic locker room talk that establishes that he’s a pig and that there’s a Big Game™ that night. Jackson awakes from his pregame rest to discover that his phone has been stolen and the front door has been left ajar, but before he can complete his call to 911, he finds a trail of photographs that depict his violent hazing of a fellow footballer (we learn after the opening credits that this supposedly teenaged victim was still-alive Caleb, played by the also-28 Burkely Duffield, but from the photos it looked like Jackson had beaten a kid to death, which is also part of this film’s storytelling issues). Jackson follows the path laid out by these photos to his bedroom closet where he is confronted by a hooded killer wearing Jackson’s face. While begging for his life, Jackson asks the killer if they want money and offers to Venmo them, which was actually a fairly inspired bit of dialogue that got a chuckle out of me; these pleas fall on deaf ears, and Jackson is killed, while his killer simultaneously sends the evidence of Jackson being an abusive psycho to everyone at the football game. 

After Jackson’s Drew Barrymore pre-credits death, we meet the above-mentioned main characters as they huddle up and extend an olive branch to Caleb, who never reported the hazing that happened to him for fear of being outed as gay, only to end up outed by Jackson’s death and facing exactly the kind of ostracization he expected (combined with paranoia that he might have been involved in Jackson’s killing for revenge, despite being on the football field at the time of death). Suspicion also falls on Ollie Larsson (Théodore Pellerin), the school’s resident trench coat kid with the requisite tragic backstory: alcoholic parents who died in a drunk driving accident, teased by others that mom and dad killed themselves because their son was a psychopath, and being raised by his older brother who happens to be a local deputy, which gives him plenty of opportunities to access “files” for red herring purposes. Other potential killers include the aforementioned Skipper, what with his expansionist desires, attempts to set up his own police, and his extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia (most of which Zach has turned into marijuana paraphernalia), as well as Dave (Ryan Beil), “the only Uber driver in town,” whose attempts at standard rideshare driver small talk could also be interpreted sinisterly. 

After the second killing, of previously mentioned overachiever Katie, who is murdered while setting up for Jackson’s memorial service and is outed as the host of an anonymous but virulent white supremacist podcast, the local police set up a curfew after ineptly and thus unsuccessfully interviewing the students from the high school, except Zach, whose father’s lawyer pulls the boy from the line-up. That night, Ollie and Makani try to sneak away for a tryst, but join the rest of the town’s teenagers in gathering at a large house party to reveal their most hidden truths to one another in the hopes that doing so will protect them from the killer, assuming that the victims are being murdered because of their secrets. During the party, however, Rodrigo is outed as a secret drug addict and killed, with the killer once again wearing a 3D printed mask of the victim’s face. Makani, still hiding the real reason that she was sent to Nebraska to live with her grandmother, fears that she is next, and although the killer nearly does her in, she’s rescued just in time, although not before her secret is revealed to her peers: when she and several other junior varsity girls were force-fed alcohol at a bonfire in a hazing ritual by upperclassmen, she pushed another girl into the fire in an inebriated rage, burning the other girl severely. Her friends forgive her, and tell her that Ollie is in custody. It seems all is well, unless the killer is still out there, ready to strike terror at the seasonal corn maze. 

There are a lot of fun ideas at play here, and I wish that they were in a better movie. I don’t think that any of the film’s failures, which ultimately make this film feel like less than the sum of its parts, can be attributed to any one individual. The lack of cohesion with regards to the killer’s motivation may have been better handled in the novel on which the film is based; I haven’t read it, but internal motivations can be more easily conveyed on the page than on screen, and I get the feeling this happened here. The killer’s final lines, and the lines that our heroine delivers to the killer regarding the incoherence of their stated motives, both feel like the dramatic equivalent of orphaned punchlines, as they’re portrayed as if they are capstones on thematic statements about privilege and the lack thereof, but these supposed elements aren’t as present throughout the text as much as the finale tries to convince you they were. It feels empty and postural, a cynical attempt to appeal to the social justice generation by assimilating its language without grappling with its intent or the meaning of that discourse. If this is what everyone’s dads think social justice is, no wonder they hate it so much. Special praise should be given to the direction and the cinematography, however; director Patrick Brice (Creep) makes some really great choices, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter supports them with some beautiful photography. The finale of the opening scene is particularly striking, as the typical drama of for-cinema American high school football plays out on the field while the stands fall deathly silent as everyone assembled receives a message with the details of Jackson’s bullying, with Caleb then turning triumphantly to the stands after a successful touchdown to find all attention elsewhere. The scenes near the end of the film that take place in a burning corn field are also delightfully composed and visually dynamic, and the idea of a killer creating a mask of the victim is also a stroke of genius and makes for several unsettling scenes. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make this one worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond