Most of the ‘80s throwbacks and homages currently proliferating look to the ambience of Amblin even if the material skews darker than Spielberg generally liked – Summer of 84, for instance, pits its group of mid-teens against a serial killer cop in a small town. Director Jenn Wexler, who co-wrote with Giaco Furino, seems to prefer the early, spiky filmography of Penelope Spheeris, and pits a bunch of punks who could have come from Spheeris’s Suburbia or Dudes against another killer cop, a nameless forest ranger (Jeremy Holm) who calmly spouts national park regulations in Smokey the Bear tones as he stalks, torments and kills the scruffy, leather-and-studs, hair-dyed interlopers who build fires where they shouldn’t, spray-tag trees and play loud music on their huge ghetto blaster.
It’s a film that looks at the bond between spree killer and final girl, with the genial maniac more interested in getting pink-haired Chelsea (Chloe Levine) to admit that she has a homicidal streak – as evinced in an often-flashed-back-to childhood trauma involving an uncle (inevitably, Larry Fessenden) and bottle-shooting practice on the edge of a cliff that never actually resolves who did what and why – and presumably join him in spending the off-season murdering hunters and feeding them to the wolves. After her uncle’s death, Chelsea has quit the woods – abandoning her family cabin – and started hanging round with the wrong crowd. Her asshole boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu) keeps screwing up her life, stashing his drugs in her backpack then stabbing a cop she comes close to executing. When the gang – including two gays who can’t decide on a band name (Jeremy Pope, Bubba Waller) and a purple-haired chick (Amanda Grace Benitez) who owns a graffiti-covered van – go on the run, Garth suggests they hole up in that cabin and no sooner have they arrived than they’re trashing her memories of the place and acting like thoughtless jerks (one of their character names actually is Jerk).
The scenes with the punks are uncomfortably convincing, stressing the pain of being the sensible one in the group who has to clear up messes which aren’t of her making, but also mark this out as one of those slasher movies where audiences incline towards wanting to see the victims die … which is either an easy out for a breezy, not-too-deep body count picture or a way of putting us in the position of the incipiently homicidal heroine. Levine, with her big eyes and bruised lips, is an interesting heroine, eventually spattered with blood that matches her hair dye, but Holm is rather too cartoonish as yet another killer cop with cages in his basement, man-traps scattered around the property (the old favourite pulling-the-foot-off gag gets a workout), a lax attitude to leaving around weapons (axes, rifles) that can be used against him, and a warped Charles Napier smile. Wexler has produced films for Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix shingle (including Darling, Most Beautiful Island and Psychopaths) – in her feature debut, she does a decent, brisk, if unspectacular job on an acceptable don’t-go-in-the-woods picture. An end credits thanks to the NYC/NJ punk scene explains why the extras, costumes, music and general mood are relatively authentic. To the list of innocuous songs now liable to be forever associated with a movie maniac we can add Claude Rich’s 1973 country hit ‘Hey Did You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World? (And, If You Did, Was She Crying?)’.