Written by: Joseph Kahn, Mark Palermo
Directed by: Joseph Kahn
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell and Spencer Locke
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“It's not the end of the world--it's just high school."
Filmmaking (especially in the horror genre) is often about gamesmanship and escalation. We’re always looking for the film that will push things to the next level. I’d like to say I’ve found it in Detention, but what director and madman Joseph Kahn has done here isn’t just next-level--he’s playing an entirely different game that's so ahead of the curve that it's already lovingly critiquing the curve. By the end of the film, he’s made something defies genre but not context, a film that rejects clichés and embraces them, a film that’s unlike anything you’ve seen and exactly like everything you’ve seen, all of it heaped into one brain-melting stew that’s flavored with both nostalgia and ingenuity.
The skeletal framework is a horror movie, and a pretty familiar one at that since the opening scene is Scream with a dash of Mean Girls. We’re introduced to Taylor Fisher (Allison Woods), Grizzly Lake High’s alpha bitch who spends most of her time telling us she’s the alpha bitch in a lightning fast, gabby sequence that sets her up as the film’s protagonist before slashing her down within about five minutes. It turns out that the kids at Grizzly Lake are being stalked by Cinderhella, the fictional character from a series of popular movies, and misfit loner Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) is sure she’s next. And if Cinderhella doesn’t kill her, high school drama and social politics just might.
You think you know this story, and indeed Kahn knows you know it and about two dozen others, only you’ve never quite seen them thrown together with such a reckless contempt for your senses. The film plunges ahead with digression after digression, and, by the time you reach the titular detention (where the school principal--played with unexpectedly effective weirdness by Dane Cook--tosses the kids until one confesses to the murders), you’re about halfway through the film and think you’ve settled in. However, Kahn starts to empty the tank almost to the point of exhaustion here, as the he breathlessly goes off the rails with one weird gambit after the next (there’s an aside involving the abduction of the school’s mascot from an alien planet--I’ll give you that much, and nothing more). I’m almost tempted to say Detention spirals out of control, but that would assume that Kahn isn’t in control when he is--in fact, the whole film is so remarkably assured that it’s breathtaking and exhilarating even when you’re not sure just what in the hell is going on.
Which is not to say Detention is incoherent--it’s not, and, even though it might take multiple passes to digest the buffet of information Kahn offers, the film is the best kind of brilliant: unhinged, yet fully aware--in fact, it’s hyper-aware, not only of itself but everything that came before it. We often refer to other films to give some sort of reference point, but it’s especially apt here since Detention is cobbled together from and wouldn’t exist without the films its riffing on--The Fly, Heathers, Road House, Three O’Clock High, Saw, Freaky Friday, The Breakfast Club, and even Back to the Future. If Scream lightly munched on the corpse of the slasher genre, then Detention is feasting on an entire morgue and wearing the patchwork skin of its victims and shoving its tongue through the orifice. All the while, it's melding the perceptiveness of John Hughes, Savage Steve Holland, and Kevin Williamson with the manic energy provided of Sam Raimi, Edgar Wright, and speedballs.
There’s certainly no adderall to be found, and if Detention were an ADD case, it might be beyond treatment. Everything about the film is hyper--its story, its style, its kinesis. It blazes with speed and fervor like a nitrous-charged fever dream that you’d expect from the director of Torque (who doesn’t even spare himself from the critical potshots levied by his own film). Sometimes, it feels like an impossible endeavor--nothing about it should work since it’s so off-script and insane, but it’s such beautifully rendered chaos, like a Jackson Pollock painting given form by the pop culture signposts Andy Warhol. Detention never shuffles along lifelessly, even if it’s composed of glib references and self-reflexivity because it’s not just a dutiful role-call--it goes beyond that and examines our current sensory overload. In many ways, it’s the logical step from Scream (and even Tarantino and his ilk), a post-ironic melting pot where all this stuff is apropos of nothing but apropos of everything. This isn’t blank parody pastiche--it’s a vibrant, smart pastiche that thrillingly repurposes its parts and creates a sum that transcends them by dissecting the clichés, tropes, and themes of these genres before crazy gluing them all together.
It’s arguable that Kahn’s most incredible feat is the genuine sincerity resting at the center of the film. Detention is hugely irreverent, and such films have a tendency to lose that humanity. However, this film has a nimble mix of irreverence and earnestness, particularly in its Hughes-style sympathy for its over-medicated, over-stimulated teenagers. The sensory overload guiding the film is their kaleidoscopic lens that has reduced the world to a frenzied collections of catch-phrases, cultural clichés, and commodities (even some of the film’s opening credits are stylized like familiar logos). This is high school in the 21st century, and, as it turns out, it might not be all that different from high school in 1992, as Detention explores the cyclical nature of teenage existence.
We’ll always have the typical caricatures in both teen movies and slasher movies, and Kahn has knowingly picked the perfect vehicle to examine all of this; in the 1980s, if these kids weren’t getting hacked to death by some maniac, then they were metaphorically tearing each other apart in some ways. What Kahn has crafted here is a “dead teenager” movie that points the finger at the death of culture and the end of history and their effect on even the most self-aware set of teenagers like Riley and her friends. Caswell ends up being the heart in a film that seems like it shouldn’t have one, as she gives a wonderfully sweet and grounded performance that captures the loneliness, desperation, and defense mechanism level sarcasm of the outcast. Riley seems like the type of girl that should be above it all but can’t be because high school is such a soul sucking endeavor.
Earlier this year, I said that The Cabin in the Woods slammed the book shut on post-modern, ironic horror, but, as it turns out, Kahn managed to scribble all over it and tear out some pages first. He then took those pages and pasted together this deranged scrapbook of a teenage who overcooked his brain by channel surfing. Both this and Cabin might serve as the definitive double feature of 2012, as both examine the problems with modern filmmaking and culture and present themselves as solutions. Both are likely to be largely ignored for now, but these films will be packing theaters for midnight revival screenings for years to come. For now, check out Detention on Sony’s upcoming DVD or Blu-ray release, though I would suggest the latter if possible because the film deserves to assault and overpower your sensibilities with the fantastic presentation provided by the disc. Special features include screen tests, a rehearsal, “riffing with Dane,” and a making-of feature that details the fascinating production of the film (which was a years-long labor of love for the self-financing Kahn). Smart, funny, and equally full of splatstick violence and heart, Detention isn’t just next-level horror--it’s next level everything, a senses-altering reaffirmation of cinema. Buy it!
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