Friday 20 April 2018

4/20 Massacre (2018)

Director: Dylan Reynolds
Writer: Dylan Reynolds
Stars: Stars: Jamie Bernadette, Vanessa Reynolds, Stacey Danger, Justine Wachsberger, Marissa Pistone and James Storm

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Holidays come in all shapes and sizes and, as marijuana takes over from nicotine as the go to drug for Americans, 4/20 is becoming an important one. With stoners a traditional element of slasher movies, I’m rather surprised that nobody’s shot a horror flick set on this date before. I’m happy that the first turns out to be Dylan Reynolds, director of Nipples & Palm Trees, as he’s not the usual candidate for this sort of picture and he brings something a little different to the table. In many ways, this isn’t a horror film at all, even if it does feature such a quintessential slasher story as a bunch of young adults going camping in the woods, where they’re picked off one by one by a silent maniac who’s credited as the Shape, in a nod to John Carpenter’s Halloween. At heart, it’s more of a character-driven drama that merely happens to have a gruesome death scene every quarter of an hour. Only as the count of living people in the woods drops to three (c’mon, you were expecting everyone to live?) does it really become a traditional horror movie.

Reynolds, who wrote and directed, clearly understands the conventions of slasher movies and is happy, at points, to cater to time-honoured traditions. Mostly, however, he’s happy to avoid them. For instance, the folk whom he has traipse up four miles of trails to get to their remote campsite are odd in number, meaning that not everyone is going to pair up for the inevitable fooling around. I hope I don’t put potential viewers off by saying that he gives us precisely zero scenes of people having sex in tents. We don’t even see any boobs, even though all five of these campers are female, thus avoiding a few more clichés. They’re here to celebrate Jess’s birthday, which is on 4/20 (or, for my fellow Brits, 20/4, which just doesn’t sound as catchy), but Jess isn’t particularly fond of the weed; she tells her friends that it makes her paranoid. It’s Donna that’s the traditional stoner and she’s more than happy when the plot almost literally runs into them on the way up the hill to the campsite.

You see, in the pre-credits sequence, a couple of young idiots are planning to steal from an illegal marijuana farm in this unnamed Californian national forest. They know they’ll be stealing from criminals, but Dug (without an O, apparently) thinks that’s perfectly acceptable opportunism. They find what they’re looking for, at a perfect time too—the crooks have been harvesting and a quantity of weed is already packaged and ready to go. They load it up into Buddy’s rucksack and... well, the forest comes alive in the form of some sort of camouflaged ninja and that’s it for Dug. He’s sliced right across the throat and Buddy runs away in terror. After those opening credits, he runs into the girls and, in an intelligent move that turns out to not help him in the slightest, he hands them his backpack full of freshly harvested drugs. “You're all next,” he tells them. Well, they’re not, of course; he is. The monster drops out of a tree he unwisely pauses beneath and slices his stomach open. Buddy tries to stuff his intestines back in, but he fails.

So, all the men we’ve met in this picture, except for Ranger Rick, who warns the girls to “stay out of them damn hills” because the guerrilla growers there aren’t “old hippy farts” but “cold blooded gangsters running a business”, have now been murdered in cold blood. We’re left with one authority figure who exits stage left and five young ladies with a heroic quantity of stolen weed that we know is being hunted. We’re set not only for at least another four death scenes (yes, Reynolds panders to tradition and leaves us a final girl), but a horror movie that might just pass the Bechdel test. In fact, it doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, but the Mako Mori test, the Sphinx test and the Vito Russo test, along with probably a bunch of others. It’s notably ironic that such a film was written by a man, but kudos to Reynolds for populating his movie with women and daring, shock horror, to treat them like they’re human beings. Noting that this really shouldn’t be notable ironically highlights just how notable it is.
I should introduce these ladies. Jess is the birthday girl and she’s played by Jamie Bernadette who’s not a horror icon yet, but may become one based on films like this and the upcoming I Can Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu. She certainly ought to know how that works because she made Axeman at Cutter’s Creek with two of the more prominent scream queens, Tiffany Shepis and Brinke Stevens. She does a very good job here, as both a scared victim and a tough chick who isn’t going to take any more. Aubrey is an old friend who wants to be more than that, which makes Vanessa Reynolds a particularly interesting casting choice here, given that she married the film’s male director in 2012. I’m unsure if Rachel and Michelle are a couple as the story begins or whether the former merely plans to seduce the latter during the trip, but they’re two more lesbian characters, which means that over half the leads are LGBT in outlook. I know you’re picturing a Skinemax Spring Break movie right now but that’s not what you’ll see here.

That leaves Donna, the traditional stoner chick, who is the least of the five but the one who grounds the picture with background on why 4/20. Oddly, she’s also going to be in The 420 Movie: Mary & Jane, a comedy featuring a “three foot tall Mexican drug lord”, presumably played by Verne Troyer, so she’s either an expert on the subject or a victim of typecasting. Certainly, she doesn’t dig too deep into the history of 4/20 here, which dates back to 1971 and five high school students, called the Waldos, who planned to follow a treasure map in a search for an abandoned marijuana crop. No, that’s not the unproduced adult sequel to The Goonies, it was an real group of students at the San Rafael High School, who met at 4:20 p.m. by the Louis Pasteur statue on campus. This odd beginning grew, through some sort of deification of the Waldos in High Times magazine, into what Vivian McPeak of Hempfest in Seattle calls “half celebration and half call to action.” Donna certainly goes there.
She also raises another reason: balance. It seems that 20th April has seen so much negativity over the years that she believes that “it’s our collective duty to blaze up on this day”. For a start, it’s not just Jess’s birthday, it’s Adolf Hitler’s too. Donna also mentions the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 (a real 4/20 Massacre) as other examples of bad juju for the day, along with a couple of others that technically took place the day before: the ATF’s assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing two years later. Why she didn’t stick to what actually happened on 4/20, I don’t know, because there really is plenty of it, especially over the last century: the Ludlow Massacre, the murder of twenty Jewish children after medical experimentation at Neuengamme, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the Johnson Space Center shooting, the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig... all reasons for her to blaze up to “ward off all the bad vibes and evil spirits.”

These five ladies have varying degrees of experience and I’m not aware of any instance of them working together before, but they show a lot of chemistry and their dialogue, while not always being clever, is acutely natural. Much of it feels improvised, but I have a feeling that it wasn’t. That natural feel works really well with the natural location—this is the only feature film I can think of that doesn’t show us a single building at any point; the closest we get are a couple of tents. I liked all of them, for different reasons, and I honestly can’t remember a slasher movie in which I liked all the characters; usually there are at least a few that I want to die slow and painful deaths just as valid payment for being so frickin’ annoying. Even Donna, as unlikely as it would be for she and I to hang out in real life, seems like a cool person to know. She’s Stacey Danger, who started in Channeling and progressed to The Neon Demon and others. She was also a co-producer on this film, just as Vanessa Reynolds was a producer.
While all the actors are capable, I want to call out Jamie Bernadette and Marissa Pistone for special praise. The former isn’t only a capable actress, she’s also an excellent lead. Sure, she does exactly what her character needs to do on screen, especially late in the film when things get critical, but she’s also the bedrock of the movie, both as a character and an actress. It’s Jess who’s having that birthday and giving them reason why they’re all in the woods getting attacked by a lunatic in camouflage, but it’s Bernadette who the other actors refer to. They may be melodies as they play out their subplots, but she’s the riff at the heart of the movie that all of them have to come back to. Pistone doesn’t have any of that grounding, as Michelle, but she shines in quite a number of scenes, including one where she’s more believably distraught than I’ve seen anyone in a horror movie, running away from the monster in ways that make no sense to us but, at that moment in time, bring life to her sense of utter panic. She’s most of the film’s tension.

And here’s where I point out that tension isn’t what drives this feature. Reynolds may not have made a particularly horrific horror movie in 4/20 Massacre, but he does know the conventions and, when he hauls out his technique, he wields it well. Most of this ties to his use of the Shape, who does end up with a little explanation and back story. There are some textbook shots where we see the Shape before the characters in frame do, or where he moves in just the right way or stands in just the right place. It’s those points that show that Reynolds knows slasher flicks, but he’s obviously far more interested in fleshing out his characters than defleshing them. All this makes 4/20 Massacre an odd hybrid of comedy drama and slasher. I’d call it lighthearted, except that gives the wrong impression; it is absolutely lighthearted, but it’s absolutely not fluff. We learn who these five ladies are, enough so that we’re with them she blazes up emotionally as they meet their inevitable demises. Normally, we cheer at death scenes. Here, we play with other emotions.
Another reason that we feel differently to normal is the score, which is as unlike what we expect from a slasher as everything else here. The music is by Sleeping Wolf (who are also advertised on Donna’s T-shirt throughout) and Defoe. I don’t know which is the twee pop band that reminded me a little of the Cardigans, but I was impressed with both bands, neither of which sound remotely like the usual trendy hip hop or numetal blah. Their music makes us feel like we’re there in the middle of nowhere with the girls, even if it doesn’t make us feel like we’re there in the middle of nowhere with a killer on the loose, at least until the last twenty or so minutes. And here’s the biggest problem the picture has: this merging of two apparently different genres is refreshing and I’ll happily praise all the character building, but the lack of tension does take some of the punch out of the horror side of things. As I would bet money that horror fans will pick this up in larger numbers than indie drama fans, that may be a problem.

Now, it could be that they like it anyway. After all, the deaths are decent, especially the one most appropriate to the title, and the special make up effects by Brennan Jones are up to snuff, if you pardon the pun. If the gorehounds can deal with lesbians chatting without taking their tops off, there’s enough here to impress them, but they may be better off with a more traditional stoner slasher like Devi Snively’s Trippin’. It's more likely that this will play better to drama fans, who will appreciate the characters and the lack of clichés on offer. In fact, they may love this because the horror parts are likely to be a little more than they expect, so bringing a punch back into the picture. “Gruesome bloodthirsty shit,” says a rare male character at one point, which this would absolutely be to a viewer who hasn’t grown up on endless Friday the 13th sequels. 4/20 Massacre is a decent picture, especially given its overt lack of budget, but it’s probably not what most viewers will expect. Given that, I hope it finds an audience.

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