Studio: Phase 4 Films
Director: Kimberly Seilhamer
Writer: Kimberly Seilhamer
Producer: Sally Kirkland, Douglas Tait, Sheri Reeves
Stars: Douglas Tait, Sally Kirkland, Tony Todd
When their school bus overturns near a strangely deserted carnival, a group of teenagers learns the truth behind the legend of Railroad Jack.
It is a gross but fair generalization to blanketly state that high school teens in horror movies nigh pathologically make consistently head scratching decisions. Not only are the teens of “Jack the Reaper” no different, but they are gunning for the championship title of most questionable behavior in the face of fatal danger.
After a brief flashback to give the killer his biggest whiff of a backstory, the film moves to a present day Saturday morning in the Charon High School parking lot. A “Breakfast Club” roster of characters then arrives at conveniently staggered intervals that allow each teen to be introduced one at a time. Each of them failed to turn in a paper on the Industrial Revolution, so Mr. Smith has planned a bus trip where the Charon High students will learn local railroad history instead.
It stands to reason that the students might be from the same class, seeing as how they all neglected the same assignment. But in addition to not knowing everyone’s names, some of them appear to be laying eyes on each other for the very first time. Luckily for variety’s sake, the group includes a sampler platter of the usual stereotypes: the jocks, a nerdy fat kid, a quiet girl (so quiet that she is actually mute and deaf), a chalk-skinned loner, and the rest. All hair colors and ethnicities are fairly represented as well, making for an ensemble that Benetton would gladly approve.
The teens are given their first clue that the day will be stranger than predicted when Tony Todd briefly appears to deliver a cryptic monologue about train-related fatalities and the legend of Railroad Jack. All the exposition needed about the fate lying ahead comes courtesy of Todd’s distinguishable rasp. He warns the students that, with pickaxe in hand, Railroad Jack haunts the local tracks in search of souls to harvest.
Seeds of foreshadowing suitably sown, the misfits head home, only to have the sudden sight of Railroad Jack himself throw the driver into a panic as he overturns the bus. When the students regain consciousness, they realize that Mr. Smith and the driver are nowhere in sight. In fact, the only thing that is in sight is a strangely located carnival lighting up the desert night in the distance. Confused, traumatized, and covered with blood, cuts, and bruises, the teens take the only sensible course of action when faced with such a tragic and frightening situation. They point themselves in the carnival’s direction and prepare for a fun night of rides and games.
With ten teens total, a relatively high number for a singular group even by slasher standards, logic dictates that the reason behind the double-digit figure is to heighten the kill count. But the first student does not take a pickaxe to the gut until nearly two-thirds of the way into the film. How does “Jack the Reaper” pass the time until bodies start dropping? Ready yourself for a solid 25 minutes of jocks taking turns with a strength tester mallet and smacking into each other with bumper cars. Not exciting enough? Then thrill to a ball race competition for a kewpie doll or a trio of girls spinning around the carousel.
Who runs the attractions at this abandoned five-ride carnival in the middle of nowhere? The teens do, of course. Because the smart place to be when injured and trapped in an unknown location is inside the locked cage of a salt and pepper shaker operated by an unknowledgeable 16 year old.
It takes so long for anything truly menacing to happen that the perfunctory backstories introduced after the opening credits are forgotten by both the audience and the script. One of the girls has a sexually abusive father. One of the boys just discovered his girlfriend is pregnant. None of these facts have any bearing on the plot, aside from a brief vow later in the film to be a good father, and none of these details make the characters interesting or endearing.
The style of “Jack the Reaper” is as uninteresting as the story. Strange handheld movements and quick micro zooms in and out give a displaced “NYPD Blue” vibe. Shadows are nearly non-extant with each frame completely bathed in the kind of flat, milky light usually seen in shot on video news pieces. A strange female voice-over adds unnecessary narration as a disembodied character that only confuses the film’s loose mythology.
The movie name-drops “Prom Night” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” suggesting some kind of genre knowledge that ended up missing from this particular product. Ever since Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse,” the dark ride carnival has often been a reliably spooky milieu for horror. Yet even with its own Haunted Mansion ride on premises, “Jack the Reaper” is still devoid of fun as a sideshow-styled terror. Worse still, the weak urban legend running the engine solidifies “Jack the Reaper” as unfulfilling and unsuccessful in everything that it tries to emulate.
Review Score: 15