Written and Directed by: Jake Helgren
Starring: Lexi Giovagnoli, Wesley Scott, amd Debbie Rochon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
High school is murder.
What a difference a couple of decades makes: had Varsity Blood been released in 1985, I’m guessing it would be considered an unremarkable, semi-forgotten effort lost among of horde of indistinguishable slashers. But in 2014, a straightforward slasher movie with no pretense of being a self-aware throwback is rather rare. Not that this guarantees any sort of quality or anything: its relative freshness aside, Varsity Blood isn’t exactly a triumphant return to form for the genre because it feels exactly like the sort of movie that gave slashers a bad name in the first place—a poorly acted, shoddily produced exercise in gore that can’t get out of its own way long enough for it to deliver its cheap thrills.
A year after being rocked by a tragic, alcohol-fuelled cheerleading accident, the students at Hogeye High haven’t exactly learned their lesson. With Halloween falling on a Friday, the cheerleading squad and their jock boyfriends have arranged to throw a wild kegger down at an old, abandoned farmhouse, much to the dismay of their principal and parents. When a maniac arrives in town and begins slaughtering everyone associated with the previous years’ tragedy, the festivities turn into a bloody fight for survival.
I feel like there should be a macro for these sort of synopses at this point. Admittedly, I do like some of the details they’ve plugged into this one: the Halloween setting is always irresistible (and the aesthetic often follows suit: the film is drenched in orange and blacks, right down to Hogeye High’s school colors), plus you’ve got the ol’ “tragic incident comes back to roost” subplot, a reliable standby that’s ripe with possibilities. In fact, writer/director Jake Helgren sees it as an opportunity to craft an extensive backstory that provides plenty of suspects. Relayed via a laughably awful exposition dump between the new girl in town (and default Final Girl) and her new friends, we learn that the accident (which resulted in the most popular cheerleader’s death) left plenty of folks traumatized, including her father and boyfriend, the latter of whom was shipped off to a nearby insane asylum. When word arrives that he’s escaped…well, you can pretty well guess he’s not behind the slayings because it’s too obvious and telegraphed. For whatever reason, Varsity Blood decides to complicate things by checking off every box on the slasher checklist by becoming a whodunit, only it’s one of those sort of mystery films where everyone proceeds so well-assured that you know a twist is coming when it stupidly arrives.
But forget the ludicrous ending—let’s back up to the dreaded half-hour that precedes the mayhem, where the film develops its characters in the most rote and predictable manner. High school drama is abundant—this girl likes that guy but has to contend with her step-sister, while this guy likes that girl who’s stuck with a douchebag running back for a boyfriend (a character that reinforces the idea that anyone named “Blaine” is an asshole). Another girl asserts herself as the squad’s alpha-bitch and relentlessly hazes the “fat” girl in the group (unsurprisingly, this girl looks perfectly healthy—damn you, insane modern beauty standards). You wonder how these characters can even stand each other, as just about the only thing they have in common is the belabored acting turns bringing them to life. Genre enthusiasts will be quick to say “well, no shit” and wonder how this is any different from any number of slashers. It’s a fair point, but the combination of obnoxious characters, amateur performances, and the inordinate amount of time spent with them is toxic. I only wanted to see this collection of preps and jocks die horribly after fifteen minutes.
Of course, that’s not the most egregious slasher sin so long as a film can gleefully and gorily dispatch its band of idiots. Varsity Blood barely manages to escape committing the worst transgression, as its kills are at least practically realized and quite splattery—well, when you can see them, anyway. For whatever reason, the film’s photography often cloaks the proceedings in murky shadows, thus obscuring a lot of the appeal here. Even those kills that stand out are of the uber-routine sort, such as a mid-coitus arrow-through-the-chest gag, though the requisite prologue does feature a pretty memorable bit involving a basketball goal. Beyond that, though, the slashing is pretty mundane and uniform, with the killer (dressed out in the high school’s cheap mascot costume) plugging arrows and slugging axes into the victims.
Within its first ten minutes, I actually had high hopes for Varsity Blood—it actually looked to be so far up my alley that I was pretty sure this review would have to come with a disclaimer saying as much. Between the genre (though I’m often tough on slashers, I love ‘em like goddamn candy) and the Halloween setting, it felt like it was made for me. But alas, it only offered proof that yes, even slashers require some skill behind them, which is not to say Helgren’s effort is completely without merit. Again, at least his gore is practical, plus he generally has a handle on the tone: his film might grate, but at least it’s not an overly-cheeky wink-fest that borders on parody. If his sincerity finds a match in a more seasoned screenwriter and more competent camerawork, he’ll hopefully craft something a little more worthy of the genre he so obviously reveres. Perhaps then, we’ll look back at Varsity Blood as evidence of his potential; for now, it looks to be lost among a throng of indistinguishable direct-to-video horror offerings on the shelf, and Image Entertainment’s DVD—which features a solid presentation but no features—does its best to help it stand out with some admittedly wicked cover art that the film doesn’t live up to. At least the spirit of 1985 is alive and well. Rent it!
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