An American Terror (2014)

APRIL 15, 2015


I recently saw Class of 1984 for the first time, and while it's got its hokey elements and B-movie trappings, it's still a fascinating look at a then "possible future" that not only came true, but got worse. Nothing in the movie is as bad as what's actually happened at Columbine, Sandy Hook, etc., which is what makes it hard to remember that at the time it was made, the movie's vision of metal detectors in high schools wasn't yet a reality. It's "dated" in the most peculiar way, which is why movies like An American Terror can manage to hit those same nerves even though it's not particularly good. The attempt at blending a disturbing "the outcasts strike back" scenario with a Hostel-esque torture dungeon is admirably unique, but it never quite gels, and the epilogue is so laughably bad it mostly undoes whatever message the movie was trying to get across.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it's only "horror" in the scary real world sense - our protagonists are a trio of typical outcast stereotypes: the chubby nerd with glasses, the emo kid, and the skater punk. The popular kids call them fags, deface one of their cars, etc., and they decide they've had enough and will get revenge at the upcoming homecoming dance. The nerdy one builds pipe bombs at home while the other two go out to some remote junkyard to secure guns, where they poke around and miraculously discover an underground lair. At this point it becomes your average horror movie from 2008, with our protagonists getting chained up, tortured, running around dimly lit corridors, etc. One of them is killed pretty quickly, the other one engages in cat-n-mouse struggles with the villain, a 400 lb half naked guy wearing what looks like a gas mask outfitted with a beak.

Somewhere in there the surviving kid finds a cheerleader that has been kidnapped as well, but seemingly left alone while Birdman watches cartoons and molests a toy doll (no idea). This is where the movie starts to falter; not only is it baffling that the killer hasn't done anything of note to her, but of course she just happens to be one of the "nice" popular kids who doesn't pick on him and (gasp!) even remembers his name. It'd be far more interesting if it was one of the worst of the worst trapped in there with him, a girl (or guy) who would gladly leave him for dead and not care that he saved her. Instead (spoiler!) she is so grateful to him that she promises him "cheerleader pussy" in front of the jocks at the film's conclusion, which manages to make Jordana Brewster's character making out with Elijah Wood at the end of The Faculty look plausible in comparison. There's a great moment a few minutes earlier, where it's the next morning and he's sitting at the breakfast table with a half-smile on his face as his parents scream at each other - THAT'S the ending. He survived, he stopped his friend from blowing up the dance, and his problems don't seem so bad anymore. Or even right before the "cheerleader pussy" line, when he stands up to the bullies and walks away - that too would have been acceptable. But the movie is already asking us to suspend our disbelief quite a bit, so that moment just doesn't work at all. At that point the movie transitions from "slightly happy ending to a grim movie" to "let's change the tone completely in favor of total fantasy". The director might as well have had the local Porsche dealership give him a brand new car and a million dollars while he was at it.

And it doesn't help matters any that the torture dungeon sequence (which is basically the movie's 2nd act - they escape with quite a bit to go as they race to the school in order to stop the other kid from blowing it up) is pretty forgettable. The killer passes the action figure test (molested toy doll sold separately), but without anyone else trapped in there with them it's basically one long chase scene with few stakes, as we know they'll both be OK. There's a brief bit where it seems like things will get more interesting, when the hulking, previously silent killer reveals himself to be able to speak quite normally (a move swiped from The Hills Run Red, but still a fun one to pull out), but it goes nowhere, and when this segment of the film wrapped up with over 20 minutes to go, I couldn't help but feel that it was basically just padding. Sure, it's the thing that makes our hero decide NOT to massacre his school, but anything could have done that. And fans will likely feel ripped off about it too; the DVD cover showcases Birdman (albeit a much skinnier version) and the plot description focuses mainly on this element, but it's really only like a 35 minute segment in the middle of the movie. Not only is that less than half, but since it's over with and forgotten with an entire act to go, it doesn't even count as something it's building toward - it'd be like promoting The Conjuring entirely around Annabelle (or Annabelle around, uh, the creepy kids in the hall or something). I guess we can give them a few points for not bringing the killer back and following the kid to the homecoming (he's pretty definitively killed; it's actually awesome in theory but marred by poor CGI), but even that would at least marry the two plots together in a better fashion than "the kid gets scared and changes his mind about something else."

So in that regard it feels episodic; there's one or two cutaways to the kid that stayed behind to build bombs, and annoying titles reminding us what time it is, but otherwise it's easy to forget about the real plot during the would-be Hostel sequel in the middle. The more gung-ho kid is the one that gets killed within seconds of entering the dungeon, and there isn't all that much dialogue for the next half hour. So the first half hour is about some tormented kids deciding to strike back, the 2nd half hour is about an unlikely pairing trying to escape a mad killer, and the third is about a kid who does the right thing. The hero kid isn't a bad actor or anything, but his journey is so scattershot that it's hard to really get into it (and, lest we forget, he puts himself into this situation because he's part of a would-be terrorist plot, though to be fair he's a bit hesitant about it from the start). The editing doesn't help, either; the director was also the editor, and he had a real hard-on for slow fades, and thus uses them oh, eleventy billion times or so during the 82 minute film. He also frequently cuts to similar angles (particularly during the brief climactic struggle between hero and now ex-friend), which is a maddening technique I have zero tolerance for. I'd rather see boom mics or something in the shot than feel like the editor is trying to cut that sort of gaffe out of the image.

Ordinarily I'd feel a bit bad about slamming an indie; the credits end with a personal thank you from the director to everyone that helped him accomplish his dream, which suggests this was a labor of love and maybe even something personal. And hey, he made a movie and got it released - he should be proud. Plus it's not even THAT bad, just sloppy and awkwardly structured (this is one case where a flashback structure might have actually improved things), and commits the sin of sending you off on the movie's worst moment. But then I looked on the IMDb page to check something halfway through writing this review, and saw not one, not two, but THREE 10 star reviews from people who otherwise never review anything, which means they are fake. This drives me up a wall even when I see it on movies I really like, so no guilt here. If they want to mislead people by comparing it to Halloween and Friday the 13th (which doesn't even make sense - it's not a slasher film), then it's only fair folks like me balance it out with an honest take. I really don't get why these plant reviews don't set their bar a bit lower so they're less obvious; I do not doubt folks like it (Dread Central gave it a nice review, in fact), but when you toss around terms like "best of the year candidate", you're only setting people up for disappointment - IF they believe you're a real viewer in the first place. Have a little tact, plants!

What say you?


Post a Comment

Movie & TV Show Preview Widget