A menacing figure. A group of unsuspecting young adults. A prominent weapon of choice. A real, relevant setting, and a lesson to learn. All of these factors combine to create the genetic makeup of horror’s most renowned subgenre: The Classic Slasher. Whether these flicks stand for meaningful allegories that bring the terrors of the world to our doorstep or remain gratuitous, mindless displays of gore and sex continues to be explored. However, it’s undeniable that types of films have built strong, lasting support within the genre and will actively evolve around it one sharp blade at a time. Newcomer, Dallas Jackson takes slasher themes to the streets with the newest Blumhouse Production, Thriller.
Like the meta-horror commentary made popular by Wes Craven’s Scream, Dallas Jackson and writer Ken Rance (New In Town) set out to put a spin on typical tropes and storylines while maintaining the integrity of a truly classic slasher film. When it comes to the slasher film it’s safe to follow the rules and balance out the formula. It’s cool to break from tradition, and hip to go against the grain. Thriller already scores horror points with its aspiring cast including Jessica Allain (The Honor List), Jason Woods (Emergency), Mitchell Edwards (The First Purge), Pepi Sonuga (Ash vs Evil Dead), Mykelti Williamson (Fences), Paige Hurd (Beauty Shop), Maestro Harrell (Barbershop), Tequan Richmond (Ray), and Vanessa Williams (Candyman).
“[Thriller brings] a new killer addition to the league of slashers by nodding to genre expectations, while also rewriting the rules for a new generation of horror”
The film also sticks to a simple, and classically familiar premise: A young group of friends pull a cruel prank on another young local outcast, Chauncey, resulting in his rough sentence to a juvenile facility only to be released years later to hunt the teens down during homecoming weekend in their native South Central Los Angeles town. Jackson and Rance use Thriller’s sound setup to frame a new killer addition to the league of slashers by nodding to genre expectations, while also rewriting the rules for a new generation of horror. One that openly celebrates a more inclusive, diverse audience.
So, does Thrillerreally pass the slasher test? Yes… and no.
It’s obvious that a traumatic backstory and daunting upcoming high school event in a treacherous setting all add up to an enormous amount of slasher material to work with. The elements from the leading lady to the terrifying villain of Thriller compose an original and sharp story. The most important element, the plot, graduates from the classic formula and packs many commendable, original factors that so many, even seasoned, filmmakers have butchered in the past. The plot and the twist ending (both of them) are solid as the story is a familiar, yet fresh take on slasher origins.
The characters are integrated with logical exposition, while our hooded villain dwells in the background ready to strike at the opportune moment. The heroine, Lisa (Jessica Allain), finds herself caught between the darkness of her guilty past and the bright horizon of her potential future. The villain is simplistically terrifying and relevantly objective while the plot remains pretty air-tight throughout its appropriate 90-minute runtime.
“The plot and the twist ending (both of them) are solid as the story is a familiar, yet fresh take on slasher origins.”
The setting acts as a character in itself, while effectively adding purpose and range to the narrative. At times it poses ominous, subtle tones of teen killer throwbacks like Prom Night and I Know What You Did Last Summer, but plays up a contemporary feel running within the same vein as Tragedy Girls and Happy Death Day. The use of color is really impressive without being too intentional or saturated. A great palette ranging from brilliant and strong to dark, subdued hues hosts a real, youthful California-style aesthetic that works well with the film’s fun, but threatening themes. Expressive opening and closing sequences are as purposeful as they are beautiful. The urban artwork and style provides Chauncey’s (Jason Woods) juvenile history as well as the group’s fate come the ending scene.
These choices set up the street feel of South Central LA which acts as an overarching theme running parallel to the dread of Chauncey’s vengeful rampage. Focusing on the real “ills of the world” including poverty, poor education, gang related activities, and crime, Thriller presents a deeper meaning to the motives of Chauncey and his prey alike. The plot and theme integrate as the threat of senseless murders and inability to escape become interchangeable between Chauncey and the violent setting. The streets talk, but it seems like no one is listening.
“Bringing such an intense slasher character out from the corners of darkness […] is a bold, but powerful move that adds dignity and modern excitement to Thriller.”
While it tackles the substantial issues of urban inhabitants and the truly scary hardships minorities still face today, Thriller peppers in the laughs with terrific timing. Mysterious messages, modern teen interaction, a “tough”, but wussy male lead, and a funny wisecracking cop add to some earnest tongue-in-cheek moments that never take away from the serious scenes- a feat most dark comedies struggle to attain. The light, aware humor adds to the sense of realness and authenticity of the environment Lisa and her friends reside in. Chauncey, like any good movie villain, captures the attention of viewers with every appearance of his drawn black hood. His presence, and speed, reel in the excitement with a rebellious, interesting take on the killer trope.
Being a recognizable kid from the streets, Chauncey is rarely lurking in the shadows and does not become some eerie phantom of the night. The villain of this story is a local, everyone knows who he is and he refuses to steady himself in containment once he is released from his cell. Bringing such an intense slasher character out from the corners of darkness and into the vibrant world of his childhood tormentors as he wreaks havoc on their lives is a bold, but powerful move that adds dignity and modern excitement to Thriller.
Aside from some typical complaints like the score and music by RZA being tragically underutilized and parts of the dialogue being far too patronizing to the viewer, Thriller somehow manages to overly commit the ultimate horror slasher sin: hardly any of the kills are committed on screen. Loose scenes tease scares and intense kills, but never follow through. A good bit of the content between the strong beginning and the surprising end just jump between situations of forced exposition and awkward, uncomfortably creepy red herrings. Two (two!) characters trip and hurt their ankles while running away from Chauncey’s attack while hardly any blood or gore of any kind is displayed. Many of Thriller’s distracting oddities and unusually dull choices could have easily been forgiven if the carnage leveled up and the horror we came for took center stage.
There are certain rules one must abide by in order to create a slasher movie. Rule Number One: Show The Damn Slashing.
“Rule Number One: Show The Damn Slashing”
Ironically, where Thriller finds so much promise in the basic understanding of a horror slasher, it turns up short in the factors of physical and visual terror. Instead of dialing in on important, noticeable elements, Jackson and Rance drag the story through countless scenes reiterating the theme to the point of basically incorporating it into the script as a thesis statement. While the themes of escaping their environment and the odds playing against these characters’ demographic are incredibly relevant and very appreciated in this addition to genre, I don’t think it needed to be so blatant verbalized in every other scene. In it’s weakest moments, it almost reversed itself into a self-aware parody.
In the essence of Thriller’s moments of overkill, too many characters were written into this group of friends to care about. They were hard to keep track of, did not really seem to care for one another, and were written with such a one dimensional mindset that it was easy to determine who would bite it and what order the killing sequence would follow. Some plotlines were completely left off in the dust, while other came out of left field. So much thought went into heavily emphasizing the themes and allegories, that Thrillerfailed to drive home the execution of basic character development.
The end of Thriller is fairly shocking and clever, relating back to the plot and the villain with unique confidence. However, the third act is executed with such little care and consideration that it’s hard to say Thriller completely earns any considerable slasher rank. I will sing the praises of Thriller’s ability to adapt the slasher trope while reviving the use of real human threats in a multicultural setting with purposeful commentary every day of the week… but that does not mean every part of it is good or even watchable at times. Did I mention that two characters trip on their own feet and injure their ankles while running away from the killer? I can remain ignorant to the flaws of any horror film if the basic elements hit high notes, and they do in Thriller, but there were too many detractors pulling me out of optimistic slasher-revival bliss.
Thriller has the mechanics and the potential to be a truly great, meaningful, relevant slasher, but fell flat where it needed to be strong. Unfortunately, the wholistic composition of Thriller relied on these details which became detractors and ultimately fell victim to the ‘good idea done wrong’ trope. I respect Jackson, Rance, and all of the production that went into this story, as developing the basics of a slasher is usually the hardest part of its overall effectiveness. Despite all of the detractors, I will remain hopeful for the future of Thriller and subsequent films alike as the slasher subgenre reemerges from the overworked bars that have repressed it for so long. This newly urban horror emergence presents some weaknesses, “sprained ankles” so to speak, but holds so much pride and importance within the film industry that I refuse to believe it will stand back within the shadows much longer.
“Thriller has the mechanics and the potential to be a truly great […] but fell flat where it needed to be strong.”
Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing Chauncey return to Compton High with a tighter script and a more intentional blade for a Thriller sequel. It is a slasher rite of passage, after all. Thriller drops on Netflix Sunday April 14. Let us know what you thought of the film. Do you think Dallas Jackson nailed a killer slasher comeback? Share your thoughts over on Twitter, our Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook page, or on our Subreddit page!