NOVEMBER 29, 2009
I've largely sworn off watching these no-budget indies that clog the horror section of Netflix's instant viewing selection (which itself is an act I only resort to when I have no physical rentals to watch - drawback of a holiday weekend), but Summer School demanded my attention. Why? The plot synopsis began "After watching an endless string of horror films for his movie-review Web site, sleepy teen Charles (Simon Wallace) can't stay awake...." - holy shit! That's me! Except I'm not a teen, and my name isn't Charles.
Sensing that the "can't stay awake" part would mirror my own activity during the film, I decided to make use of the new feature on Xbox that allows you to watch the film "with" friends over their Xbox Live service. So I roped in my good friend Matt, 3000 miles away, and the screen became a little MST3K type "living room", with our avatars at the bottom and the film on a giant plasma TV in said room (I wish there was an option to blow the film back up to full size though - the updated service also has improved quality to the streaming image, and it never once had to rebuffer throughout our viewing). I think this is a great idea, for the record. I'm not big on the idea of streaming movies as a rule, but I cannot deny how much more fun it was to watch this movie with a buddy laughing along at all the dumb moments.
And dumb moments are aplenty in this thing. Apparently under the impression that people like "It was all a dream" endings in their horror films, Ben Trandem and about a half dozen other writers and directors load their film up with about ten scenes where our hero wakes up in his classroom, signaling that the portion of the film we just watched (and possibly enjoyed) was a dream. The different dreams are each mini-versions of horror movies: a vampire tale, a sort-of slasher, even a good ol' fashioned "running afoul of hillbillies" sequence. So our hero (the not me guy) will wake up from the vampire story, walk a few feet, and find himself in a hillbilly movie. And then he wakes up from that and finds himself in a slasher. And so on, and so on. It gets tiresome after 30 minutes - and there's another 60 of the same fucking thing left to go.
It wouldn't be so bad if the "horror movies" were in any way interesting, but they are all largely bland, and once we learn the movie's gimmick, never become believable anyway. The closest they ever get to "OK maybe this one is legit" is the hillbilly one, because for once the bad guys aren't the other characters from the film's "real" story (a summer school class, plus their teacher and a security guard). But even that is botched, because the story begins with Charlie walking out of his very suburban school and directly into middle-of-nowheresville, and thus is the only one that even the dumbest viewer would know right from the start is yet another dream.
I was also puzzled by the schizophrenic score. The first 20 minutes of the film are "aided" by a non-stop jazz riff, and then once it finally goes away we are treated with a score that switches gears every few minutes; Carpenter-esque drones, Old Dark House-y clattering, etc. Worse (better?), it drowns out the dialogue at times. Then again, the dialogue itself is often balanced poorly; character A will be crystal clear and character B will be muffled or speaking at a few decibels lower than the other. Granted, I know balancing audio is the most tedious part of editing, but Christ, if you're going to make people pay for this thing, the least you can do is put a little effort into its presentation.
And as a horror movie fan, I am kind of insulted by the way we are depicted in this film, i.e. as introverted would-be psychos. I'm guessing that Trandem and co. are not fans of the genre (which would explain why they were so bad at creating even reasonably decent facsimiles of horror films for their dream sequences), and thus end up delivering yet another "Watching horror movies turns you into a psycho" moron message (NOTE - As Planet of Terror points out below, this is not the case. I stand corrected. Feelings on the film remain, however). As I explained earlier, the plot is about a kid who "overdosed" on a series of horror films in order to review them for his website, which I guess we are to assume isn't his normal behavior. Maybe those who just watch 1-2 horror films a month will be OK? As Matt hilariously pointed out halfway through the film, "Maybe it's a cautionary tale aimed directly at you."
Of course, the final scene of the film reveals that, once again, it has all been a dream, and that Charlie has mistakenly gone into summer school on a Sunday. As he walks out of the school, he is immediately hit by a car. So what is the point? They do the whole thing about horror films turning him crazy, but with this new "reveal", all it does is explain that watching horror films makes you forget what day it is. Or does he even watch horror movies? It's like the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Luckily, it's shitty cake and no one else would want any.
Pros I should mention: the cinematography is decent, and the DV image looked good even on the lo-res Netflix stream. And one of his dream "movies" is about a crazed Nazi who shoots up the school, which isn't a horror genre I am familiar with but plan to seek out some titles that fit the bill. Hopefully they are better than this.
What say you?