Welcome to another installation of Portrait of a Killer Character! For some reason, horror tends to get accused of shallow, tropey characters more than other genres. While there are of course horror films that warrant character-based criticism, there are just as many that deserve praise. Here, in this monthly editorial, we’ll take a look at some of the best developed, most interesting and well-rounded characters that horror has to offer. These characters defy stereotypes and their value transcends the genre into the world of film at large. This month we take a look at Riley from 2011’s Detention.
Directed by Joseph Kahn, Detention is a film that defies a simple categorization. Part horror, part science-fiction, part nostalgia drenched comedic satire, Detention embodies all these genres and more. And the film’s fluidity doesn’t end there. When it comes to the film’s writing and overall aesthetic, Kahn and writing partner Mark Palermo held nothing back. Remember Gak and the way you could squish it, squeeze it and mold it? Detention works in a similar fashion. Through Kahn’s music video style direction and Palermo’s creative mind, Detention becomes a film that gets satisfyingly squeezed in different directions while retaining an overall consistency.
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As a killer named Cinderhella stalks the student body at the high school in Grizzly Lake, a group of co-eds band together to survive while they’re all serving detention. Oh, and don’t forget the time traveling bear, Brundlefly knockoff and body-swap sub-plot thrown in for good measure.
Early in the open, several of the film’s characteristics become established. For one, Detention is no slow burn. Scene after scene, cut after cut clips along with relentless efficiency. Along with this overall pace comes rapid fire pop-culture referencing dialogue that gives the Gilmore Girls a run for their money. And then we begin to meet our characters. While many are immediately recognizable as teen flick stereotypes, Riley (played by Shanley Caswell) achieves a unique and refreshing take on the semi-nerdy, secretly hot outcast girl. It is through Riley‘s remarkable relatability and Caswell’s spot-on authenticity that Riley becomes a practical and instrumental piece of the Detention puzzle.
As soon as Riley is introduced on screen, we find her lying in bed dreading the day that lies before her. As we see her face acknowledging a strange feeling, she reveals her hand to be covered in a red substance. This is a scenario that nearly every woman can relate to and it’s one that is rarely if ever, shown on screen. Riley quickly learns the culprit is only ketchup and not, in fact, her period but that brief and subtle moment sets the stage for her character perfectly.
“It is through Riley’s remarkable relatability and [Shanley] Caswell’s spot-on authenticity that Riley becomes a practical and instrumental piece of the Detention puzzle.”
Once Riley‘s day at Grizzly Lake High begins, we begin to learn more about her personality. Riley is clumsy, cynical, intelligent and awkward despite having a group of friends who range on the spectrum of popularity. She unapologetically wears a homemade tank top that says ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ and argues the validity of a vegetarian diet on stage with vigor and passion. And then, after a decent counter-debate from Canadian exchange student Gord, we see Riley inches away from a very meaty burger.
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Mere hours ago Riley was determined and vocal on her beliefs towards animal cruelty, and yet she begins to question everything after her classmates dismiss her opinions. While this may initially come off as weak on Riley‘s part, in reality, it’s an incredibly human response. Time and time again throughout the film, we see Riley struggling with her own values, ideals and self-worth. The high school years are an extremely formative and emotional time for many and through Riley we see this reflected beautifully.
Along with Riley navigating her evolving principles, we watch her navigate her emotions as well. In slightly immature fashion, Riley acts extra tough around her friends Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), Ione (Spencer Locke) and Sander (Aaron David Johnson). While she outwardly displays disinterest in Clapton and Ione‘s new relationship, we see her struggle with hurt and sadness over the situation. Not only is her current crush overlooking her as a romantic interest, but her best friend is now the focus of his affections.
This emotional landscape that Riley has found herself in could have easily been written terribly. While there are moments when Riley succumbs to her sadness, and there are also moments where she counters them deliberately. Even though getting drunk and making out with your crush’s best friend is probably never the best idea, it’s certainly an understandable response. Had Kahn and Palermo gone too far with Riley‘s inner conflict, the character of Riley would have sacrificed authenticity, strength and believability. By allowing Riley to acknowledge, accept and struggle with her feelings, Kahn and Palermo keep the character firmly walking on the right side of relatability.
“…a character that not only feels very real, but raises the bar of how teenagers can and should be portrayed on film.”
Teenagers are often extremely oversimplified in film with emotions being utilized as cliches. Riley is different. One can certainly not discount Kahn and Palermo’s keen writing to the success of Riley in this way. However, credit is also due to Shanley Caswell’s execution of the character. While many of the other Detention characters are exaggerated, over-the-top embodiments of stereotypes, Caswell manages to retain a truly authentic and grounded performance. Through Caswell’s oftentimes subtle and deliberate facial expressions, we catch glimpses of Riley‘s softer side.
Yes, Riley is strong, capable and witty. And yes, Riley is also sensitive, emotional and flawed. As we follow Riley through the bonkers plot of Detention, we watch her struggle with a serial killer, best friend drama, time travel, a broken foot and the thought of suicide. All of these moments require very different, very separate reactions and somehow Caswell balances them all with ease. Her performance creates a character that not only feels very real, but raises the bar of how teenagers can and should be portrayed on film.
Now, let it be said…Detention is not a movie for everyone. The film is incredibly self aware with an insane amount of pop-culture references, plot holes, bananas sub-plots and large personalities all thrown at the audience at an Adderall pace. While part of Detention‘s charm is this kitchen sink mentality, the presence of emotional connection and anchoring has proven to be crucial to the film’s growing cult status. This is where the character of Riley not only takes on an important emotional role, but a practical one as well.
Detention tackles a lot of ideas, and executes them to remarkable effect. However, it would be very easy for a film like this to speed completely off the rails. By following Riley and her journey, she gives the audience a center point to focus on. Despite all the insanity that swirls around her and the students at Grizzly Lake High, Riley remains our home base. Through her, we begin to care about these characters, their roles and their stories. Through her, the slasher Cinderhella stalking young teens begins to make sense. No matter what direction the film heads in at any given moment, Riley is always the one that reels it all back in.
“No matter what direction the film heads in at any given moment, Riley is always the one that reels it all back in.”
Despite all the bells and whistles that Detention displays, it retains at its core an incredible amount of heart. Kahn famously poured a lot of his own resources into the film and his dedication and passion towards the project is evident. Even with fancy visual effects, a bumpin’ soundtrack and 90s nostalgia oozing out of every nook and cranny, it’s Kahn and Palermo’s talented writing that shines the brightest. By crafting Riley with such wit and charm, they created one of the most effortless, engaging, and real high school characters in recent horror memory. With its initial release limited to festivals and Direct-to-Video, Detention remains a film that has flown stealthily under many horror fan’s radar. For these reasons and many more, Detention has angled itself to be perfect modern cult classic material in all of the best ways.
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