Written by: Derick Martini & Bret Easton Ellis (screenplay), Michael Hornburg (novel)
Directed by: Derick Martini
Starring: Bella Heathcote, Penelope Mitchell, and Tom Arnold
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"The curse is complete BS. We'll be fine."
As other authors have noted, one of the most haunting bits from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre comes before the movie even truly begins, when John Larroquette’s opening narration soberly insists the events are “all the more tragic in that they were very young.” Death in horror films is arguably never more disturbing than it is when it casts its long shadows over youth: from Haddonfield to Elm Street, it’s stretched out like an icy specter to remind us that life is short—sometimes unnaturally so.
For a brief moment, The Curse of Downers Grove rests in that same sobering shadow by intertwining a time of great promise and potential (high school graduation) with the grim prospect of certain death. It’s a film that seems like it gets it: no matter how often this sort of story is told, it’s inherently bone-chilling. The illusion doesn’t last long, though, as it’s in a hurry to practically forget about its titular curse in favor of a comparatively lame tale of high school drama and disaffected teens taken to their logical extreme.
Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) lives in Downers Grove, where the local high school was built atop an Indian burial ground, much to the chagrin of the (rightfully) besmirched natives. In retaliation, an annual hex plagues the school: ever since its construction, a high school senior has died under mysterious or tragic circumstances. With less than a week to go until graduation, Chrissie is not particularly worried and writes it off as a recurring coincidence wherein seniors have often made bad decisions that led them to their gruesome demise. Naturally, she and a friend soon make a bad decision of their own by heading across town to attend a party at the behest of a couple of jocks . When the star quarterback sexually assaults her, Chrissie escapes by gouging out his eye and fleeing in terror. Her troubles have only begun, however, as the deranged boy takes to stalking her and her friends.
Bait and switches are nothing particularly new in this game, but I can’t recall the last time a film so ruthlessly and blatantly decided to give zero fucks about its established premise. The first fifteen minutes or so are soaked in a spooky, ominous atmosphere as we relive past tragedies, such as a drunk teen falling off of a water tower and splattering his brains all over the pavement. As graduation approaches, the teens huddle together and whisper about the curse’s next victim—there’s a very Final Destination vibe to it all, even if it’s obvious and overdone. Sometimes, horror works best when it’s frank, and The Curse of Downers Grove couldn’t be clearer: at least one of these teenagers is going to die, and they aren’t going to deserve it. Life is terrifying and unfair. They didn’t ask for their school to inspire a death curse after all.
Absolutely nothing is done with the implications of these sins being passed down to the next generation—Chrissie’s meth-head father is conspicuous by his absence, and her mom takes off with her latest boyfriend, leaving her children to fend for themselves during their horrifying ordeal. But that’s about the extent of it—otherwise, Downers Grove doesn’t muster up much concern about anything beyond its soap opera twists and turns. The curse becomes a distant memory as Chrissie contends with a jealous guy friend, a new relationship with the smoldering, new-to-town mechanic, and, of course, the rapist and his pack of thugs. More parties are planned between hangout sessions and brawls, leading one to co-opt a phrase from Ian Malcolm: “now, eventually, you do plan on having a curse in your movie about a deadly curse, right?”
Completely forgetting about the curse of Downers Grove in a movie titled The Curse of Downers Grove feels either incompetent or weirdly pretentious. I’m tending to lean towards the latter, especially since the film is concerned with soap opera trash but proceeds as if it’s trying to say Something Important. Characters lounge about and spout phony dialogue during conversations that feel as if they were written by freshman philosophy students, and their interactions are only made more awkward by the stilted turns across the board. Heathcote—who was so incredible in Not Fade Away that I can’t fathom why she hasn’t become a huge star—does what she can, but this is a case where a terrific actress is dragged down by terrible material. She and the rest of the cast are left to flail about in a story that plods along from one tired plot point to the next (watch as Chrissie’s guy pal broods when she talks about her new boyfriend and try not to guess where this is all going, for example).
What’s frustrating is that this story—which originally took the form of Michael Hornburg’s novel in 2001—is more relevant than ever given our increased awareness of athletic (and male) privilege. The Curse of Downers Grove preceded Steubenville by several years as a novel, yet this adaptation—co-written by Bret Easton Ellis—does little to comment on the institutions that allow this malaise to flourish. It glances briefly at corrupt cops who let Chrissie’s attacker off the hook, but director Derick Martini is more invested in rushing to a violent climax that rings hollow in more ways than one. Not only is it staged with all the intensity of a light breeze, but Chrissie’s blood-soaked vengeance is treated as triumphant when it should be disturbing. It plays like the The Last House on the Left remake when it should play like Craven’s original by having us realize that this ordeal has taken a piece of Chrissie’s soul along with her pound of flesh.
Instead, it momentarily lives in a fantasy land aftermath where everything is okay—until it isn’t thanks to a last-second twist that’s been telegraphed for nearly an hour. The titular curse—which only has a presence via chintzy stylistic tics (read: negative images of creepy Native Americans, which inexplicably returns after the credits to pad the runtime)—remains a nonentity until a closing monologue assures us that the real curse is life itself. This may be the film’s most authentic moment in that it channels teenage angst in the most awkward and awful way possible—it delivers this sentiment without a hint of irony, as if it were actually imparting some kind of wisdom to an audience that can see right through its bullshit, sort of like a kid who’s turned in an F paper but is convinced it’s an A.
The Curse of Downers Grove arrives on DVD September 1st courtesy of Anchor Bay with a 2-minute making-of featurette.
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