Director: Robert Mearns
Writer: Robert Mearns
Producer: Marty Murray III, Justin Nesbitt
Stars: Sari Sanchez, Joe Adler, Laura Ashley Samuels, Pierson Fode, Michael Galante, Tommy Beardmore, Hilary Anderson, Nathan Ross Murphy
A high school prank gone wrong comes back to haunt seven friends when a masked murderer begins killing each of them one by one.
Many valuable life lessons come from horror movie trends. “Friday the 13th” and its ilk of camping carnage knockoffs remind us that nothing good ever happens in the woods, at least not while engaging in premarital sex. “Psycho,” “Vacancy,” and “Motel Hell” warn that when traveling, always stay in brand name chain accommodations. Because roadside motel owners are guaranteed to be sizing you up for a meat hook at check-in. And should anything be taken away from films like “Sorority Row” or “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” it is that if you’re ever in a murder/manslaughter cover-up with some high school chums, a time will come when the conspiracy unravels and everyone starts mysteriously dying one at a time.
“Kill Game” belongs in that last grouping. For seven friends in the quiet Illinois town of Grace Arbor, high school ended only three years ago. But it is already time for an unplanned reunion when one member of their circle ends up tortured to death by fire, leading the others to wonder if someone is out for revenge over a deadly secret from their past. The problem is, who could it be? These teen troublemakers pulled so many pranks that the suspect list includes practically every headshot in the yearbook. And with a masked maniac inventing increasingly grisly ways to off each friend one at a time, the shrinking group is running out of time to solve the mystery.
As straightforward a premise as that is, it still comes spattered in mud. The secret at the center concerns a classmate who accidentally drowned when a boyfriend/girlfriend duo pulled a buried at the beach prank along the lines of what happened to Ted Danson in “Creepshow.” Perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or maybe the script wasn’t, but I’m a bit fuzzy on how seven friends became involved in the conspiracy when flashbacks show only two of them were present at the time of the incident. Everyone was there for the staged call to the police, however. Did the couple responsible first phone five friends to help concoct a cover story?
Funnily enough, that plot point doesn’t even make the list of top ten contrivances in the movie. Leading that pack is the timely introduction of the new murder string’s top suspect: the long lost twin brother of the boy who drowned in high school. Didn’t scriptwriters do away with this character following the decline of the daytime soap opera? Speaking of timely, how convenient is it that each character revisits a prank victim and reveals another expository secret from his/her past right before becoming next in line for abduction?
Keeping eyes from rolling completely out of their sockets is an attractive young cast that meshes together quite well with very believable relationship chemistry. Casting directors often fill roles in a vacuum, considering only the performer best suited for each individual role. As an ensemble thriller, “Kill Game” hinges largely on its core characters functioning as a collective unit, and succeeds in establishing a group that genuinely feels as though they had grown together, and then apart, over the course of the past seven years.
While the empty-eyed Marilyn Monroe mask is a terrific look for the movie’s main madman, the presence behind that image doesn’t follow through on the visual jab. In discussing the impact of Michael Myers, John Carpenter said, “…there really is no character there. There’s no personality. He’s just a force. He’s just a force of evil. That’s all he is … By stripping away character, he became more powerful.” Thinking about iconic masked horror villains like Myers and Jason Voorhees, what Carpenter says is of course true. Even though we know their names and their basic backstories, there is a superhuman mystique about their distinct lack of depth that makes them more intimidating.
Since the killer under the Marilyn mask is eventually going to be revealed as one of the classmates, he doesn’t have that same air of mystery about his presence that makes him read as a truly terrifying monster. This isn’t an evil force. This is a blade-wielding human being. Yet the bigger element “Kill Game” misses in establishing its slasher is that it confuses his motivations to the point where all empathic connections with the audience are severed. In addition to the pranksters lined up for punishment, Marilyn murders every bystander in the way, including doctors, nurses, and a receptionist minding her own business.
I get that this person is a deranged individual. But the idea behind a revenge thriller is to cast the slasher in a somewhat sympathetic light of deserving retribution for a past injustice, and perhaps to partially root for the transgressors to receive their comeuppance. When the killer starts offing innocents simply to pad the body count, he loses all antihero appeal, and that just makes “Kill Game” one more body dropping bloodbath whose block we’ve all been around before.
It can be argued that criticizing “Kill Game” for being the movie it is would be like complaining of a bite after sleeping in a snake pit. The fact of the matter is that first time feature filmmaker Robert Mearns keeps his goals for crafting a horror thriller simple, and hits those marks with a bullseye. The movie kept me in the dark regarding the killer’s true identity, as my guess turned out to be incorrect, although I was also never invested enough to give it too much consideration.
At the very least, “Kill Game” looks good. Touted as the first released feature film shot entirely on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, “Kill Game” is a virtual marketing video for the rich blacks and clear night shots that low-budget indie horror films can achieve with a relatively inexpensive digital camera system.
The good news is, if you’re in the mood for a straightforward teen revenge slasher, you’ll know what to expect from “Kill Game,” and you’ll get what you came for. The bad news is, you’ll still be watching a straightforward teen revenge slasher. It looks good and follows the formula to the letter. But as you can already deduce from a film featuring a long lost twin brother as a red herring, don’t expect to be bowled over by originality or a sensible story.
Review Score: 60