Written by: Ian Kessner, Bo Ransdell
Directed by: Ian Kessner
Starring: Kendra Leigh Timmins, Robert Patrick, and Jesse Camacho
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
And you thought the 80s were dead.
Lost After Dark is the latest 80s homage that wears its influence on its sleeve—or, more accurately, on its faux-grain, intentionally distressed digital photography. Other than these visual tics, though, it doesn’t shout its affection as loudly and obnoxiously as many of its fellow imitators that really, really want you know their creators have seen an 80s slasher movie or three. Most of these films—especially in the wake of Grindhouse—get caught up in trying too hard and in doing so reveal themselves as poseurs. They’re someone’s regurgitated idea of what an 80s splatter movie is like without even approaching the actual platonic ideal. The best thing I can say about Lost After Dark is that it’s not as outwardly glib or ironic—to be blunt, it doesn’t try too hard. But it also might not try hard enough, unfortunately.
It immediately looks the part, at least, as a requisite prologue set in 1977 ends with an unnamed victim’s gruesome dispatch at the hands of a burly maniac. Seven years later, teenager Adrienne (Kendra Leigh Timmins) prepares for the spring ball, a gathering that doubles as her cover story; in reality, she’s plotting to run off to her family’s cabin with seven acquaintances in a stolen school bus. This idea is bad enough when your principal is a hardass ‘Nam vet (Robert Patrick) obviously suffering from PTSD; it’s even worse when your idiot friends forget to check the gas gauge and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. Predictably, the lone sign of civilization is a farmhouse full of human skulls and a psychopath looking to add to the collection.
“No frills” comes to mind with Lost After Dark. The sort of homage that strives to be mistaken as a “lost” film from the era, it doesn’t loudly proclaim itself as a throwback and unwittingly wind up a tone-deaf near-parody. Compared to other likeminded films, its affectations are muted and confined mostly to the fashions, hairstyles, retro designs, and music. Where many movies get caught up in forcefully poking its viewers as it asks if it remembers the 80s, Lost After Dark gives a gentle nudge, the sort that mostly causes its audience to chuckle as a light breeze of nostalgia wafts over them. You won’t find broad, annoyingly-pitched performances meant to reinforce the notion that every 80s slasher was populated by obnoxious, irredeemable assholes. For the most part, Lost After Dark is reverent of the tradition it attempts to reclaim, right down to its naming many characters after cult figures.
But when you move on from acknowledging what isn’t there, you don’t uncover much else in its place. Slasher movies often feel like empty calories, but that at least implies there’s some flavor to enjoy. Lost After Dark feels particularly empty and without much flavor to boot: accusing it of not trying hard enough may be a little too harsh because you can see what it’s up to—it’s just that it’s misguided in its attempt to spend time with characters it doesn’t actually develop. When nearly 40 minutes elapse without anyone being so much as stalked after the prologue, you begin to wonder if co-writer/director Ian Kessner isn’t trying to subvert splatter expectations. As this approach wears on, however, it becomes clear that we’re watching a lot of aimless wandering and very little suspense-building. Kids poke around barns and lounge by the roadside; some of the girls change their tops while the group’s obligatory horndog spies on them.
Despite its best efforts to craft characters, Lost After Dark still mostly deals in clichés: we have letterman jacket jocks, leather jacket rebels, slobby stoners, preps, and, of course, a virgin in Adrienne. That they’re reduced to this is hardly surprising and wouldn’t be altogether condemnable if the film weren’t in some kind of denial of it: simply spending time with them isn’t enough to make them any more than the mincemeat they’re bound to be. Only a couple of them—the rebellious Marilyn (Eve Harlow) and sweet pothead Tobe (Jesse Comacho)—really seem all that interesting, if only because their friendship is both the most unusual and the most natural all at once. If there are any two among this bunch to latch onto, it’s them. Once the film again threatens subversion by suddenly going haywire and unexpectedly hacking off certain cast members, you sense that perhaps this will be its big coup: finally, a slasher film where the first to be typically marked for death might survive.
Lost After Dark never goes there, though, preferring instead to go exactly where most of its predecessors have gone before. Considering it spends half its runtime actively avoiding the slasher movie routine, it’s odd that it aggressively adopts it for 40 minutes of breathless, almost cheeky carnage. You begin to feel it slipping away when one character begins to worry that her sister once died at this same farmhouse and that her essence may be trapped. Her boyfriend’s idea of comfort is the assurance that he’s sure the sister definitely went to heaven. From there, it’s a procession of mostly practical splatter and the occasional goof, including a missing reel gag that was tired the first few times anyone besides Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did it. Had Lost After Dark not spent so much time in dragging its feet to arrive at the inevitable blood, guts, and obliterated eyeballs (the film might fashion itself after 80s American slashers, but its best bit is straight up Fulci), it might have been more serviceable as a slasher.
In many ways, Lost After Dark accomplishes its aim to be a “lost” entry in the 80s slasher cycle: so many of the criticisms against it could be directed at any number of actual movies from the era, which begs you to wonder why anyone wouldn’t try to at least improve upon a mediocre horde rather than join it. Some bursts of inspiration hint that it could have been possible: cinematographer Curtis Petersen’s (whose DP credits stretch as far back as Food of the Gods 2) steady shooting hand captures the backwoods ambiance with unexpected grace, and the film isn’t afraid to go to some disreputable (if not juvenile) places like some of its predecessors. It’s also the only film where you can hear Robert Patrick spout the phrase “Hanoi Jane fuck” to a cannibal who looks like Madman Marz if he were reimagined by Rob Zombie (read: hulking, absurdly bearded, and slightly resembling Charles Manson).
However, whatever self-awareness it does have isn’t committed to commenting or subverting the tradition; Lost After Dark might not be as abrasive about its nostalgia, but its observations are limited to the same hollow musings: “Hey, remember crimped hair? What about new wave pop? Check out this retro Bugles box. Remember how villains never die in slasher movies?” It’s a nostalgia trip into what is ultimately an empty recreation—only occasionally does the film convince you that it could actually sit on a video store shelf during the genre’s golden years. Otherwise, it leaves you wondering why you wouldn’t just watch a classic from that era instead.
Lost After Dark arrives on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay on September 1st.
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