I’ve usually got my tongue di-rectly on the pulse of anything slasher, but somehow — two months of book tour? — Detention slipped past. In April, yes, when Growing Up Dead in Texas was just advance copies. And just a couple of days ago I was having a big talk with a good friend about slashers that are probing the edges of the genre, feeling out the limits, poking the necessary fun: Cabin Fever, Leslie Vernon, Tucker & Dale, Scream, Severance. The Killage. Then stuff like Mandy Lane or Cry_Wolf or The Hole, that are taking a less funsy angle into that particular interrogation. And, for me, of course, all these are in the coming context of my The Last Final Girl, in October (from Lazy Fascist, but I don’t think we’ve officially announced yet). You know that feeling when you have something coming out, and you get all sensitized to everything even remotely like it, suddenly certain that you’re going to get undercut?
I wouldn’t know anything about that.
And I consider myself to always be huddled over the slasher radar, anyway. I’ll sit through twenty Darkness Falls for just one of these.
Before I talk Detention, though, first, the caveats — why I’m already conditioned to fall for this: all the Demon Theory fun. How could I both write that novel and not swoon in the general area of a movie that also uses Anthony Michael Hall’s ‘who we think we are‘ voiced-over essay? And, that guy who shows up at the end as Elliot Fink? I had to roll my eyes back in my head to re-look at (my) Ethan, and realize that this Walter Perez, as he is now, for Detention, he is Ethan, grey hoodie and everything. Spooky-cool stuff. Very exciting. And then, yeah, all the visual kind of Fight Club fun, the in-the-air games with annotation going on, this idea that footnotes are just floating all around us, that they’re the air we breathe . . . yes, I suspect Joseph Kahn made this movie specifically for me. I can tell because at one point TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” plays. That smittens me every time.
However, as I read/see, Detention‘s seeming to be a movie that divides horror people into camps, yes? It’s looking kind of like you’re either a hater of this one, or you tolerate it in a cerebral kind of way. I think there’s a third option, of course — mine, ‘head over heels’ — but first to deal with why people are resisting this: it’s the hyperfrenetic Scott Pilgrim fun, yes? All the Sucker Punch visuals, the Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang nods into the camera? And, why do we tend to resist those? To take them in reverse order, Tom Selleck waggling his Magnum eyebrows into the camera, yeah, it breaks down the fourth wall, it reminds the audience that they’re watching a construction, not real life, all that. Very postmodern, if that word’s even half-usable anymore. However, in a genre like the slasher, that ‘construction,’ it’s one being built by the writer/director, sure, but it’s being propped up the whole time by the audience’s willingness to believe. We’re in on it, I’m saying. We don’t want reality, necessarily; we want the formula we know and love, the codes we learned in 1981. We want people troping around upstairs. It brings us to the edge of our seats, makes us smiles wide enough to crack our faces in two.
Too, genre-awareness in the slasher, come on: look at it from a rhetorical angle. It’s pretty much co-opting our own eventual objections, isn’t it? Sidestep to zombieland for a moment: remember how, used to, every time the dead started rising, there’d be this big expositional arc wherein this ragtag band of somehow-survivors ‘learned’ about headshots, flesh-eating, infection, all that? However, what that finally started doing was divorcing all those stories from our reality — this place, where we had Night of the Living Dead, where we know about double-taps. So, now, you’re getting characters who, when the dead rocket up out of their graves Dance of the Dead style, then, hey, they say it immediately: Zombies! And this brings it into our world. It’s the same with the slasher: without some Randy narrating out-loud for us what’s going on, then we’d have to assume that Woodsboro wasn’t a town that dreaded sundown — it had never even heard of Jason or Freddy or Michael or Leatherface.
Detention, then, sure, it’s replacing Randy with a kind of visual grammar, but it’s done so, so slickly, each single frame not just intentional, but milked, then squeezed some more, then rolled out and pounded into shape . . . it’s not quite a love letter to the genre, as Whedon and Goddard say about Cabin, but it’s definitely somebody who knows this genre inside-out, and’s trying to dig deeper. And not at all in an indulgent way, either. Or, okay: yes, completely indulgent. But never more indulgent than the slasher genre itself.
So, yeah, I’m thinking people who don’t go for this one are also those who didn’t go for Scream, because it didn’t take itself so seriously. Still, though, these bodies, they’re definitely hitting the floor, and verymuch in typical fashion. That blood sacrifice this movie, in keeping with tradition, opens with, man: it’s as strong an opening as I’ve seen (and’s very Scre4m, too, in the best way). And the title sequence, man; it’s like a mix of Se7en and xXx, with some Wes Anderson quirk sneaked in, and an Easy A/Heathers/Bandslam high-school dynamic getting very cleanly established. You could watch it on a loop and be completely happy for a day or two.
Or, are some few people cringing from Detention because of the uncomfortable friction between all the Inceptiony levels of reality this movie’s forcing on us, all the Primer convolutions, all the Bill & Ted stuff? Because, yeah, strip out the slasher elements and Detention‘s pretty much Hot-Tub Time Machine (meets, say, Night of the Demons — either one — in a Sky High screening, with some very apparent Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide logic/influence). And I happen to think Hot-Tub Time Machine (and Machete) was the hottest movie of 2010 (scroll down, sorry). And, yeah, sure, towards the end there’s some time-line and character-switching stuff that’s hard to track, but, remember where you are, too: when ‘Melissa’ pulls her latex sister-mask off in Happy Birthday to Me, were you not similarly thrilled and betrayed? Only, in Detention‘s case, we get the icing on the slasher cake: aliens, grisly, gristley, grizzly bears. Even argumentative Canadians (see: best usher EVER). The story is finally a lot like that pull-the-tablecloth-out-from-under-the-fancy-dinner trick, yeah. But, here, this time, most of the candlesticks are still standing at the end.
Better, even, you’re smiling. You can’t help it. No, this movie isn’t a love letter to the slasher genre, but it is a celebration of everything that’s right with the slasher, I’d say. To go SAT, it’s to the slasher as Doghouse is to the zombie. It knows where it’s coming from, and is looking ahead, to what’s next. And it’s pretty thrilled with what it’s seeing. So am I.