#21 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
This movie is dull, drawn out, confused, over-stuffed, and generally kind of boring. I also kind of hate it. However, it’s one of the last pieces of evidence that points to Wes Craven’s potential as a storyteller. He had real ideas buried under the mess that get ignored for long stretches of time. He just needed a good writer to sit him down and work through it. Instead, the first movie he’d written in over a decade since the entertaining mess that was New Nightmare feels like Craven trying to mimic Kevin Williamson’s writing on the Scream movies. It’s another “who’s the killer” mystery that I check out of almost immediately because I know that all I’m going to see are red herrings until the reveal. Throw in a big, tangled mess of high school politics, and you’ve got a recipe for thin boredom masquerading as a horror film. And yet…buried somewhere in there is an idea that’s been suffocated, but at least it was there somewhere.
The movie begins with an embarrassing prologue where Abel (Raul Esparza), a family man, discovers that the spirit that occasionally possesses him (and he’s talked to his shrink about before) has become a killer when he finds the distinctive knife with the word “vengeance” etched into the blade in his workspace in the basement. Full of unnecessary quick cuts, it’s borderline headache inducing. It gets worse, though, when he quickly goes nuts, calls his shrink, gets the police to his house, and becomes the unkillable killer, shot dead at least three times before being carted off in an ambulance where he wakes up again, causing the ambulance to flip and crash horribly. He ends up getting away while getting out of his strapped in gurney somehow. This all takes about six minutes. It’s “horror cliché ending”, the short film. It’s awful.
Skip ahead sixteen years and “Ripper Day” is a thing in this small town to commemorate the day the Ripper died. This is not how the real world works, by the way. Every year, the kids gather at the rusting wreck of the ambulance, cover it with candles, and highlight the seven kids born on that very day. Seven kids in a small town all born on the same day? That’s…a stretch but whatever. They have this routine where one gets picked out (why? High school politics stuff that includes numbered levels of punishment dealt out for reasons) to be the one to “kill the ripper”, a mannequin of the horrible man. Picked this year is Bug (Max Thieriot), the most sensitive of the bunch. He fails to do anything when the faux-specter appears right before the cops show up to break up the party.
Bug has a sister Leah (Emily Meade), a best friend Alex (John Magaro), a crush on Brittany (Paulina Olszynski), and is the perpetual target of Brittany’s boyfriend Brandon (Nick Lashaway). Bug, Alex, Brittany, and Brandon are four of the seven kids born on that same day, and the seven start getting picked off by a mysterious killer. Who could it be? I don’t care.
There’s a lot of little plotlines flying about here. Alex trying to teach Bug how to be a man, Bug trying to work up the courage to ask out Brittany, Brandon having impregnated another girl, Penelope (Zena Grey), the stock Jesus-freak, trying to warn everyone of the coming danger all mingle together in some kind of dense and incomprehensible soup of high school life mixed with an attempt at building horror tension as they start getting picked off. It’s so overstuffed and confused that it gets boring really fast. There’s even a standout sequence where the costume Bug makes for Alex of a California condor gets used to squirt colored water on Brandon in a class presentation.
Through some of this is Bug seemingly becoming disassociated from his own body, taking on a new demeanor and voice, like during the presentation when he goes from meek to presenter of skill with the flip of a mental switch. It’s almost like he’s another person. This mostly points the finger at Bug as the killer, but it’s also the germ of an idea at the heart of this film. It’s something about mental illness, specifically, as one character says, schizophrenia (which isn’t how schizophrenia works, but whatever). It culminates late in the film in a way that feels like it was what Craven was really trying to do with the film, but it ends up so confused and hidden by other stuff that it doesn’t hit at all. Still, the idea is there.
There are revelations of the past (none of which surprise or really matter), the real killer is revealed in an extended sequence in Bug’s house (it’s not a party, so Craven is finding some space between his take and Williamson’s), and there’s a last second equation between Bug and the condor, for reasons.
None of it is interesting. None of it matters. This movie is dumb.
And this was Craven, having taken a break from filmmaking for a few years, bringing his efforts into a single film that would let him strike out on his own again. Instead, he followed this up with his final film: another Scream movie. I can’t even say it’s scary at all because the storytelling is so bad. This is really one of Craven’s worst films, but not the worst. The Hills Have Eyes Part II still exists.