Written by: Ken Selden
Directed by: Geoffrey Wright
Starring: Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn, and Jay Mohr
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Holy hymens, Batman - they're killing virgins!"
After Scream highlighted the sexual commandment that one must remain chaste in order to survive a horror movie, you just knew that some smartass would decide to make a slasher centered on butchering a bunch of virgins. That’s the entry point for Cherry Falls, another millennial slasher that had a difficult time carving its place in the footprint of Craven’s film. Despite its best efforts to replicate Scream’s surface level affectations, it got lost in the bloodbath that ensued once the subgenre began to fall out of favor again, so it’s perhaps a little ripe for rediscovery, especially since it’s really a better throwback to the pre-Scream era than you might expect.
Another rural hole-in-the-wall is set to be terrorized, as the town of Cherry Falls, Virginia harbors a maniac who has it out for the local high school students. Specifically, the psycho’s only targeting the virgin population, which is bad news for Jody Marken (Brittany Murphy), who just ended a year-long relationship with her boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann) without going all the way. As the bodies pile up, Jody’s father, the former-football-star-turned- town-sheriff (Michael Biehn) begins to uncover evidence that a long buried town secret has come back to haunt Cherry Falls.
As a slasher, Cherry Falls hits that sweet spot between offerings from the 80s and the 90s. The Scream influence is superficially noticeable: the cast is comprised of familiar, pretty faces that had been (or were soon to be) clogging up teen movies, and it carries a studio sheen that eluded many of its more roughshod predecessors. There’s even a slight meta-snarkiness to its decision to flip the usual expectations for promiscuous characters—sort of. For it to be the film’s calling card, the concept is only mildly explored, and the film all but forgets its wacky method of engaging the obvious solution: all the town virgins hold a giant orgy, only to be relegated to the background during the climax. You kind of get the impression that the film developed as a sort of stoner musing: “hey, man, what if we, like, totally killed the virgins?”
However, once they came down from the high, no clear direction emerged, so the film retreats to every familiar genre trope imaginable: the decades-old conspiratorial plot that can’t be laid to rest, a gender-confused maniac, a plucky final girl, and a serviceable amount of death and dismemberment (truthfully, we see the aftermath more so than the slashing, but the film was also apparently censored). Even the structure follows the genre blueprint without much deviation: you’ve got your prologue where two ill-fated lovers get gutted, a whodunit murder mystery, some hints about the town’s tragic past, the big reveal, the flashback that explains everything, the slasher’s last-ditch, final scare tactic. Someone was definitely taking notes during Scream.
Screenwriter Ken Selden scribbled in the margins, too, though. Cherry Falls brings an oddball flavor to the formula that leaves you wondering if it’s a send-up or just another goofy, oblivious slasher. Some of the earlier high school sequences feel inspired by Heathers, but that tone is sadly not quite sustained throughout. Murphy is at least consistently weird. She frequently brought an odd energy to her roles, and she’s one of the stranger final girls in recent memory. With the film flipping the script, she’s not the typical, virginal priss but rather a weird little wallflower who becomes more eager to explore her sexuality.
She has an especially weird relationship with the two adult men in her life: her father and English teacher (Jay Mohr). Once the former figures out the killer’s MO, it leads to an awkward conversation where he has to confirm that his daughter’s hymen is indeed intact (and it might be the first time a father isn’t totally relieved to hear that’s the case); it’s such an obviously bonkers scene that gets played oddly straight. Likewise, the scene where Murphy practically throws herself at Mohr is weirdly uncomfortable, but that’s about it. There’s nothing particularly subversive about the weirdness, nor does the film go much further than offering some goofball humor (such as zooming in on the word “erected” on the high school façade as a bunch of teens scatter from the building on their way to the big orgy).
Again, that’s such a missed opportunity: the setup itself is obviously rich for slasher purposes, but it also provides a unique opportunity to really tackle the role of sexually empowered females within the genre. Rather than scrub away the stigma of sex (there’s an inherent slut-shaming in the notion that the “bad girls” have to die, to be honest), Cherry Falls all but reconfirms it, especially once it discards the virgin angle altogether. As it turns out, the killer is exacting revenge for a rape that occurred 25 years earlier, another revelation that should provide fertile ground to explore the transgressive nature of sex in these things. Instead, it’s just an impetus that leads into some uncomfortable territory when one of the rapists is positioned as a hero; of course, that might be part of the point, as the film is oddly prescient of cases like the recent Steubenville trial, where the town boy’s club attempted to protect its popular students (and athletes). Of course, Cherry Falls treats its rape victim as a raving lunatic that needs to be put down and doesn’t have an ounce of sympathy about it, a choice that I like to believe reflects society’s handling of these cases (otherwise, the film is a little reprehensible).
It’s sort of interesting, I suppose, especially since the killer does blur gender lines, but the sexual musings here end up being mere window dressing, leaving viewers with a typical millennial slasher and all the touchstones that entails. It’s slick, kind of gory, a little witty, and you’ll spend a decent amount of time noticing the familiar cast members, some of whom went on to be more famous (poor DJ Qualls is an exception to this—shit, he’s barely in this movie). Most of the male cast looks like they could have been in any of the era’s boy bands (except, again, poor DJ Qualls), and I suppose we’ve reached the point where we can laugh at the style of the era like we do with 80s stuff (well, unless you were just stuck in the early 90s at the time like myself, in which case you were already laughing at these clowns).
Back then, Cherry Falls wasn’t good enough for theaters, as it was dispatched straight to TV and then video, where it was paired with Terror Tract on a DVD that’s now out of print, so that won’t help matters. Even though it’s found itself way down on the far end of the bench of post-Scream slashers and doesn’t reach its full potential, I have a fondness for Cherry Falls because it walks the fine line between being a smartass (“let’s kill the virgins!”) and a dumbass (“I can’t just split,” a cop says just before he’s axed in the head); it stumbles ever-so-slightly over to the latter, and, in the world of slashers, that’s actually a victory. Buy it!
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