Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Amber Heard
Rating: 3 out of 5 snakes in the water. This movie is actually from 2006 but faced shoddy distribution until last year when it popped up on many horror fans’ must-see lists, and it has its strengths and weaknesses, so inconsistently so that the former barely outweighed the latter. It was sometimes smart, sinister and mature while at other times, it was lackluster, unsatisfying and silly; sometimes, it was stylish and refreshing and at other times, totally derivative. So then, what seems like it could be a slasher film for the school shooting era turns into something simultaneously less meaningful but also more exciting (by the film’s redeeming twist ending). But for the most part, I thought the film tried too hard to be artful and tongue-in-cheek about some aspects of its own genre and lost along the way any of the suspense and gore that makes that genre what it is.
Mandy Lane, played with a quiet and intriguing stoicism (which can be taken as either a sign of the character’s otherness or a sign of bland acting ability) by Amber Heard, “got hot” the summer before her junior year in high school. Her best friend Emmet is the typical gawky and unpopular teen who, in his own love for Mandy, causes an accident at a pool party which in many ways seems to be a catalyst for the rest of the film, which takes place 9 months later. Mandy is invited by her new group of friends to a weekend of partying at a ranch, where mayhem (slowly and with a mostly unexciting sense of fluidity and urgency) ensues.
These friends, first of all, are overly typical embodiments of slasher character archetypes; it seems almost too obvious for it to be meant sincerely, and that lack of sincerity gives the movie a somewhat playful and almost skeptical/cynical/satirical vibe, but it also made it hard for me to care when any of them got killed. This wouldn’t be an issue in most slasher films, but this film really takes its time and the killings are so relatively restrained, making them perhaps more uncomfortable than if they had been more brutal, but this all added to my overall indifference– there is a disconnect there between how much buildup there was and how little emotional pay off that buildup led to.
That being said, I really respected the film’s approach but I think it took itself almost too seriously in certain respects– despite their numbers being many, the frequent scenes of aesthetic artfulness and experimentation did not make the film any scarier nor did it elevate it beyond its horror genre boundaries. No matter how many of these moments happened, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted with every one– they were certainly interesting but also seemingly out of place, never quite adding anything truly innovative to the formula in which they were unfortunately still operating.
For me, the film’s ending was the biggest redeeming factor. I somewhat predicted it, but was still giddy watching how it precisely played out. It is in this portion of the film that any possible themes of school shooting relevance are dropped or denounced, but I would argue that that’s probably a good thing; for a film that had been, in many ways, thinking too highly of itself, it was even better uncharted territory for it to flip the story on its head and debunk any theories of higher meaning. It is also in this portion of the film where Amber Heard really shines. She is undoubtedly beautiful but in an innocent way, again setting her apart quietly from her petty, predictable Mean Girls-esque friends. Plus, what I mentioned before as seemingly or potentially poor acting truly does twist and transform into something at least slightly more nuanced and intentional by the end, making you question everything about this character as a modern-day final girl who, unlike the other characters here, truly does transcend the expectations of that role.
So, as a whole, I didn’t think the film worked as well as many horror fans thought it did. And I really truly wanted to love this film. But somehow, it felt as though it didn’t know what it really wanted to be– an homage to the slasher subgenre? An updated version of the subgenre? Or some kind of meta, self-aware, self-referential parody of the genre? The presence of all these aims makes for a muddled and hit-or-miss mess that is enjoyable even if for the sake of trying to figure out its goals, with the mystery paying off by the film’s conclusion enough for me to say I liked the film, but not enough for me to say I loved it.