Director: Dallas Jackson
Writer: Dallas Jackson, Ken Rance
Producer: Dallas Jackson, Adam Hendricks, John Lang, Greg Gilreath
Stars: Jessica Allain, Luke Tennie, Tequan Richmond, Paige Hurd, Chelsea Rendon, Mitchell Edwards, Pepi Sonuga, Jason Woods, Maestro Harrell, RZA, Mykelti Williamson
The target of a deadly childhood prank returns to haunt nine Compton High School students during Homecoming weekend.
The movie at hand attributes its copyright to an LLC called “Lisa’s Dread,” which was probably a working title for the film at one time. I can only assume producers simplified it to “Thriller” because they wanted a name that would accurately identify how anonymously generic their movie actually is.
Maybe it’s on me for having expectations of originality. I saw the predominantly black cast and South Central L.A. setting and thought these were fresh ingredients for a cool take on fright film formula.
In cleverer hands, that might be true. For co-writer/director Dallas Jackson, these traits are inconsequential crumbs drowned in a flavorless gruel whipped up using a recipe for routine.
Off the top of your head, what’s the most clichéd way you can think of to show someone suffering from a nightmare? Does it involve cutting back and forth between a sleeping girl squirming side to side and flashbacks where haunting words echo repeatedly? Does the girl also bolt upright in bed with clammy sweat on her forehead when she finally wakes? “Thriller” thought the exact same thing and, like literally every other recycled scene in the movie, never endeavors to conjure anything more creative.
Continue coming up with a list of every imaginable trope for a movie set in high school. Good girl from a struggling family frets over a college scholarship. Star athlete worries about scouts attending the big game. Likable loser comically rehearses his “will you go to the dance with me?” proposal on an imaginary crush. Parents out of town means a house party on the horizon. Coach’s inspirational speech, restroom catfights, cafeteria confrontations, and more than one unfaithful girlfriend are just some of the additional yawns you can look forward to as “Thriller” dresses a standard stage for staleness.
Benefit of the doubt supposes the intention all along was to go by the book, no matter how boring. Perhaps the point of plugging POC actors into stereotyped roles and seen-before situations is simply to prove that complexion should be irrelevant when it comes to casting considerations for run-of-the-mill movies. That would be an admirable goal except as far as entertainment value goes, “Thriller” only succeeds in Xeroxing a flick as forgettable as every other cookie-cutter teen slasher it seemingly means to mirror.
The only meaningful content to come out of the Compton backdrop involves two separate confrontations where school administrators challenge troubled students. One delivers dialogue about how murder statistics predetermine a black man’s fate while the other touches on acting hard in the hood as a survival tactic.
Both come off as shoehorned exchanges masquerading as commentary since neither has lasting narrative impact. Neither student interacts with his respective teacher again, and the background bit about feigning toughness has nearly no bearing on that boy’s arc. Having perfunctorily fulfilled its quota for brief social awareness, “Thriller” promptly abandons any additional stabs at evaporating thematic subtext to coast obliviously on autopilot in a nosedive pointed straight at the ground.
“Thriller” starts with ten classmates playing a prank on misfit stutterer Chauncey. It isn’t much of a prank. Their grand plan involves luring the poor boy, whom we’re supposed to be instantly endeared to because he buys a hot dog for a homeless man in the single scene where we get to know him, into an abandoned house. There, the ten friends tease Chauncey by repeating his name while wearing skull masks. Apparently Chauncey is too dim to recognize that everyone is still wearing their school uniforms, so he wigs out with a natural reaction that results in an accidental fatality.
The kids pin the blame entirely on Chauncey of course. Unconcerned with why ten children in skull masks were present when he supposedly went haywire, Detective Raymond Johnson arrests Chauncey almost as eagerly as Chauncey vows his revenge.
Four years later, Chauncey returns. Plainly outfitted in a dark hoodie, but conspicuously concealed by a black mask (sigh, could he actually be someone else?), Chauncey picks up picking off the people who put him away while everyone else dons dresses and arranges dates for Homecoming.
At this point in the eye-rolling exposition, I never wanted so badly to be “that guy” lighting up a cellphone to check the time in a theater before. “Thriller” runs under 90 minutes. But it’s so painfully predictable and flatly filmed that I was already anxious for it to be over before Act One even finished.
Pedestrian plotting is far from “Thriller’s” only issue. Sloppy execution mars the movie on its technical front too. Unless it was a momentary projection error, one particular establishing shot of the kids outside their school is so blindingly blown out, I’m legitimately shocked it was left in the final cut. A montage of a high school football game also incorporates amateurish clips evidently shot with a cellphone.
Only a slide whistle could make RZA’s bizarre score sound any sillier. Early on, I honestly thought the film might have been setting itself up for a switch into dark comedy because of the cartoonish leitmotif for the killer. Imitating John Carpenter’s “Halloween” themes like a dollar store bargain CD, boisterous audio stings regularly barge in like the aural equivalent of Kool-Aid Man except somehow more hysterically absurd.
Had “Thriller” actually tuned its tone for legitimate laughs, maybe the go-nowhere subplot where the victim’s twin sister goofily talks to herself in two voices, or the telegraphed twist regarding the killer’s obvious identity, wouldn’t be so disappointingly dopey. But between the boilerplate fiction and carelessly cut corners, “Thriller” could quite possibly be the worst movie to ever bear the Blumhouse banner, and there’s some choice competition for that dubious distinction.
Review Score: 35