From Halloween to Scream, the slasher genre has long been rooted in small towns overtaken by terror. A towering stranger with a mask and a knife slices through the promised happiness of quiet streets, leaving a trail of screams and blood. Or the slasher might prefer the woods, like in the Friday The 13th franchise. But again, this means a place known for peace and quiet is disrupted by horrible violence. Typically, these killers and their victims are white. Now, Blumhouse’s new-to-Netflix offering Thriller aims to shake up slasher subgenre by setting its story in South Central Los Angeles, where Black and Lantinx teens are stalked by a killer in a black hoodie.
Written by director Dallas Jackson and Ken Rance, Thriller begins with a childish prank gone deadly wrong. To save themselves from trouble, a circle of friends points the finger at the local misfit, sweet and stuttering Chauncey. After four brutal years in juvenile detention, he’s returned to the streets where he was betrayed. He is transformed, towering, and intimidating. Gone is the warm smile, replaced by a hard sneer. His fists punched into the pockets of a black sweatshirt with its hood raised, Chauncey (Jason Woods) pushes down sidewalks and into bodegas silent but seen. His very presence sparks fear in the classmates who once condemned him. And as the big homecoming dance approaches, blood will spill, bodies will begin to pile up, and these kids may be forced to pay for their prank with their lives.
It’s an intriguing revenge setup. But Thriller’s execution is frightfully poor. For starters, its cast of characters is too big! The story centers on good girl Lisa (Jessica Allain), who feels so guilty about that ill-fated prank that she is plagued by nightmares of Chauncey. Then there’s her sweet football star boyfriend Ty (Mitchell Edwards), his jealous “hood rat” ex-girlfriend Gina (Paige Hurd), wannabe gangster Andre (Tequan Richmond), aspiring DJ Derick (Luke Tennie), self-proclaimed “hoochie” Kim (Pepi Sonuga), quibbling couple Eddie (Michael Ocampo) and Tiffany (Chelsea Rendon), and Ronny (Maestro Harrell), whose defining attribute is he throws a house party. With nine friends at the center of this story, there’s little time to actually carve out character, and thereby not much reason to connect to them or care about their fates!
This overstuffed ensemble of thinly sketched characters might be excused if it was a setup for a high body count. But there’ll only be two deaths before the third act. And from there, it’s a haphazard frenzy that is shockingly free of blood, jarringly anticlimactic, and deeply unsatisfying. Aside from the first slasher kill,Thriller keeps most of its violence off-camera, so the audience is, again and again, denied the ghoulish spectacle for which this subgenre is known. But that’s not the only way Thriller falls short of slasher expectations.
There’s a confounding lack of menace in this horror film. Much of Thriller takes place during the day, and there’s no attempt to create shadows that might brew mood or suggest an eerie foreshadowing. Creepy music is rarely used to set up scares. So, several would-be jump scares don’t live up to their name. But most vexing of all, the slasher at its core fails to frighten.
There’s a solid idea in having the slasher be a figure who could so easily blend into these streets. He might seem just a guy in a hoodie, minding his business. A flash of attack, then he can slip into the crowd and vanish. The dark hood that hides his face paired with the silent threat he carries could make this slasher seem as if the Grim Reaper has come to South Central. But the horror of this concept is undercut by his physicality. He doesn’t have the resolute lumber of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. He doesn’t have the ghoulish jaunt of Freddy Krueger. He’s just walking. There’s no sense of strangeness or theatricality to his physicality. In his first kill scene, he’s almost comically clumsy as he tumbles over a wall to reach his victim. Then, he runs. Runs! A major element of the horror of slashers is their killers don’t run! Their unrushed, steady walk is terrifying because it carries the implication of certainty: there’s no escape! To see a slasher run is to risk him looking ungainly, which kills terror.
Another disappointment is set up by the film’s name: Thriller. For me, it immediately called to mind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which threw a Black heroine into a sensational scary world of monsters and supernatural horror long dominated by white Scream Queens. Perhaps that was an intended reference, but this Thriller has nothing supernatural at play. So it’s a vexing misdirection. Instead, the film aims to create a true-to-life portrait of the life-or-death struggles of these Compton High School students, while working in the additional threat of a slasher. Again, a great concept! But the slight world-building in Thriller doesn’t make us feel this threat. Instead, it relies heavily on expositional dialogue. Characters talk about the high death rates of homicide among black men, about how walking down the street could mean death at the hands of gangs or cops. We can hear this. But the threats shown within the film don’t live up to these speeches. There’s one big-talking gangster, and his gruffest moment is flashing a gun after almost stealing a pair of headphones. There’s one cop (Mykelti Williamson), but he’s not presented as dangerous. At worst, he mocks Lisa’s fears, saying. “You sound like one of those paranoid white girls in a scary movie.” Both of these threats and that of its clumsy killer feel frustratingly flat.
Thriller has a foundation of terrific ideas. It aims to push the slasher into new terrain to speak to the real-life terror of an urban experience often ignored by the subgenre. I admire its ambition. But when it comes to satisfying the expectations of suspense and spectacle, Jackson seems disinterested. The film’s low budget may have been an obstacle to creating greater gore. But so much can be done with shadows, a score, and even a close-up or two of a victim’s last breath. The risks he takes with his killer and kills just don’t pay off. So in the end, Thriller just doesn’t live up to its name.
Thriller premieres on Netflix on April 14.
Header Image Source: Netflix