Published Apr 12, 2019Thriller's cool grindhouse-inspired poster and predominantly black cast could hint towards a sly sendup of a formulaic genre, a revisionist take on an often-trashy subset of horror. Hell, maybe even a fun homage to the slashers of yesteryear. But Thriller squanders what chance it has at telling a new, original, or entertaining story, settling into the drudgery of recycled characters and plot beats executed without finesse or enthusiasm.
Opening with a trope as tired as the ones that follow it, Thriller begins with a group of kids playing a prank on Chauncey (Jason Woods), a strange older boy in the neighbourhood with a stutter. When the prank goes wrong and a girl winds up the victim of a fatal accident, all the kids, of course, pin the blame on Chauncey. He's shipped off to prison while the rest of the kids live their lives — except obvious "Final Girl" Lisa (Jessica Allain), who suffers from guilt-induced nightmares.
Four years later (which feels like far too short a time considering the adult versions of all these 13-year-olds look 25 instead of 17), newly sprung Chauncey reappears, ominously wearing a black hoodie and black mask. Kids start ending up mysteriously dead before the homecoming dance, and it's only a matter of time before we start suspecting Chauncey may not be the killer behind these murders.
It's hard to think of a less diverse horror genre than the high school slasher. And at first, Thriller feels self-aware as it effortless ticks every cliché we're so used to being embodied by a white character: the sweet "Final Girl," the flirty best friend, the shy nerd, the troubled bad boy. After a while, though, we're left wondering if Thriller is content to be this generic. It's not that a film with a majority of actors of colour needs to deliver a message — there's great entertainment to be had in a fun, silly slasher movie. But Thriller just emulates the beats of hundreds of other near-identical movies about a deranged killer hunting down defenseless teens. It lacks a certain spark, and comes across as a limp and lifeless copy-paste that lacks personality.
As our moral centre Lisa, Allain does radiate an aura of wholesome kindness and determination, but she seems too afraid of acting — there's a certain hesitancy to her performance that makes it difficult to rest the film on her shoulders. This might be why the film so often switches back to following the rest of the cast and their stories, none of which come to a meaningful conclusion.
To its credit, Thriller does introduce a handful of interactions that discuss the various ways in which the system fails young black men. But these conversations never pan out — after the first 20 minutes, these themes are never brought up again, and they have no bearing on any character narratives. They're discarded midway through the film as its attention turns to the killer.
It's a lethargic cat-and-mouse game, bogged down by flat direction that's totally devoid of even the most blatant jump scares. All of this adds up to an 88-minute film that feels at least 20 minutes longer, and a disappointing end to what could've been a clever refresh of well-worn horror territory.