Back in 2012, a very minor suspense picture – Roadside – had a couple stuck on the road in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of a seemingly motiveless sniper, who combined the blankly impersonal menace of the truck in Duel with the chattiness of the rifleman in Phone Booth. Director Ryuhei Kitamura – who co-wrote Downrange with Joseph O’Bryan – does something very similar here, but adds to the body count by packing six college kids in the car and makes his villain (Alon Boyd) even more remote by having him keep schtumm as he hides in a tree, camouflaged with foliage, and uses a high-powered sniper rifle to put holes in anyone who chances in range. This is one of those ‘merciless shit happens’ horror movies, so the point is the relative innocence of the victims and the unknowable malignancy of the shooter … which is fair enough, though the ruthlessness of the scripting does tend to undercut the suspense (especially in the gory third act when more expendables show up) since the usual signifiers of survival (competence, worthiness, cuteness, backstory, ingenuity) are no guarantee of making it to the end credits, and the only kind of luck anyone has here is bad. Even after death, indignities are visited on victims as the camera tracks through head wounds or carrion birds pluck out splattered eyes or crashing cars decapitate the already-shot … and there are loving close-ups of scarlet bloodied brain matter on the tarmac.
As in Kitamura’s previous road horror movie (No One Lives) and all the way back to his Japanese credits (Versus), the violence is almost ludicrously excessive – even the attempts at making the fates of the kids poignant feels rote, as if this were just a spectacle of slaughter or (more cruelly) a pointlessly well-made Troma film. I’ve seen a few reviews that complain about the acting – but the unfamiliar young folks acquit themselves well for what they have to do. Todd (Rod Hernandez) and Sara (Alexa Yeames) are carpooling across the state (the film was shot in California) with folks they don’t know – Jodi (Kelly Connaire), who’s en route to her kid sister’s birthday party; Eric (Anthony Kirlew), a black dude in a horror film who seems only too well aware of his position as expendable and bitches about it from behind a tree stump while the white survivors huddle beside the car; Keren (Stephanie Pearson), a military brat with a useful insight into sniper tactics and battlefield medicine but somewhat lacking in empathy for the less-warsmart; and Jeff (Jason Tobias), a handsome guy whose name hasn’t registered with his new friends. When they are stuck in the open in the blazing sun by a blown-tire, the guys sort of try to change the flat … and the character who notices that the flat tire has a bullet in it gets zotzed from afar. Before it sinks in, another character we might have assumed would stick around is dead on the asphalt and the remaining kids – with various degrees of injury and hysteria – are cowering, grateful that the sniper can’t shoot through the car.
The obsession of too many horror movies these days – cell phone reception – is trotted out, with an apparent zone of connectivity only a few yards in the open … and we get a long but suspenseful mid-section as stratagems are proposed and tried, and the kids improvise with what tools come to hand (including a selfie stick, a hoodie, the lid of a toolbox and the inevitable duct tape) while Kitamura zooms in on the scope eye in the tree and allows some glimpses of the killer. After a burst of action with another passing car, the night falls and things start moving – though the emergency services are pretty useless when they finally intervene in a burst of splat-comedy that just seems callous – and it comes down to a Hills Have Eyes-ish standoff between the Last Innocent Standing (now maddened and bloodied) and the dressed-as-a-tree murdering asshole, with a punchline that will provoke a wicked laugh or a groan of annoyance depending on mood and tolerance for pitch black cool. It’s not as effective as No One Lives, where the escalation of genre cliché genuinely got into unusual areas, but there’s no denying that it racks the nerves properly.