Written and Directed by: Mark Pavia
Starring: Makenzie Vega and Bill Sage
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Accidents happen. Pray they don't.
Even though I’ll go to bat for the modern horror landscape, I do have one lingering, consistent criticism about the relative dearth of slasher movies. Not that I expect the same glut we saw in the 80s, when theater screens and video store shelves were overflowing with the blood of dead teenagers, but it’d be nice if we got more than a handful of really solid, meat-and-potatoes slashers. Sometimes, all you need is a cool-looking killer stalking some unsuspecting prey before introducing them to some sharp implement or another. It’s not the most complicated formula, yet it’s one that rarely earns an honest, earnest effort (if it earns it at all). Enter Mark Pavia, a filmmaker with a clear affinity for this genre, at least if Fender Bender is any indication: not only does this one deliver just about everything you want from a slasher, but it does so with the skill and care of someone who actually gives a damn.
Chief among the stuff you want from an effective slasher is some kind of a hook to separate it from the pack, and Fender Bender obliges with a pretty clever but straightforward premise: a maniac (Bill Sage, credited only as “The Driver”) prowls American roads and purposely bumps into women’s cars so they’ll be forced to trade information that he’ll later use to stalk them within their own homes. After a prologue introduces viewers to this M.O., the film follows the enigmatic killer to New Mexico, where he targets Hillary (Makenzie Vega), a 17-year-old girl reeling from the revelation that her scumbag boyfriend has been cheating on her. As if that weren’t enough, her eventual fender bender really pisses off her parents (that she stole their new car doesn’t help), so much so that they ground her for the weekend, effectively leaving her stranded once her new stalker makes a visit.
While there’s a retro vibe surrounding Fender Bender, Pavia isn’t simply attempting to piggyback on nostalgia. Rather than create some sort of “lost 80s slasher” he simply transplants the genre to 2016—sometimes warts and all, meaning the characters are thinly-developed, most of them existing only as a number for the body count (this is not the worst criticism for a slasher, obviously). What’s more, despite the thoroughly 80s feel given off by the retro cover art (not to mention the existence of a “VHS cut” of the film—more on that in a bit), Pavia seems to be much more inspired by Halloween. Evident not only in the Haddonfield vibes of some of the establishing shots but also in the surprising restraint on display, it’s clear that Pavia respects Carpenter’s sense of pacing and atmosphere (the howling wind swirling around yellowing leaves is a nice, subtle touch).
This is perhaps a kind way of saying Fender Bender takes a while to get going after that prologue. A far cry from an unhinged, hack-and-slash bloodbath, most of its carnage is confined to the final twenty minutes of its brisk 90-minute runtime. In the interim, there’s an adequate sense of mounting dread: the killer sends her some seemingly innocuous, yet still completely texts before spying on her in the shower, snapping pictures that she eventually discovers on her phone (along with the dismaying revelation that her car accident photos have been mysteriously wiped). A cake appears outside of her house, an apparent apology from her boyfriend (we know better, of course). When her friends surprise her with pizza (and a fucking jump scare jolt, of course), the sense of relief is short-lived because it’s obvious they aren’t long for this world (nor is the jackass of a boyfriend who also shows up drunk and belligerent—let’s just say The Driver does Hillary a solid when it comes to his fate).
But once Fender Bender does get going, it really gets going. If Joe Bob Briggs were to host a viewing of it—and it really would feel right at home on Monstervision—he’d have an impressive list of drive-in totals to reel off. The obvious sharp instruments stabbing various parts of various bodies would headline, but he’d also be able to delight in a gag involving the aforementioned cake and an awesome bit where the killer wields his car as a murder weapon. Also, there’s an incredible fire stunt, which is a solid way to show off your commitment to schlock filmmaking in my opinion.
In short, there’s a lot to like about Fender Bender, even if its title and premise might lead you to expect a bit more vehicular carnage. It’s not much a road movie at all, what with 80% of it taking place in Hillary’s house—I guess you could be a bit miffed about this, but it’s still a solid stalk-and-slash effort nonetheless. So much of its effectiveness hinges on the killer: For one thing, he looks fucking awesome: outfitted in black leather and an instantly iconic mask, he provides exactly the sort of menacing presence you crave from a slasher. You could absolutely imagine The Driver being plastered on an endless amount of Fender Bender sequel VHS covers had the film been released 30 years ago.
Perhaps more importantly, however, he remains enigmatic: we don’t even see his fully-revealed face until the very end of the movie, and there’s no attempt to explain his motivations. He’s just a creep that preys on women: in the one substantial scene Sage gets, he nails the perv factor by practically licking his lips when Hillary says it’s her “first time” having an accident. “A virgin,” he coyly remarks as she looks on, bewildered. A handful of later “reveals” and a peek inside of his car only confirm our suspicions: he’s been doing this routine for a long time—specifically long enough to accumulate the dozens of victims’ drivers licenses that line his interior (not smart criminal behavior, but I’m no expert).
His targets are solid enough too—if nothing else, they’re a believable set of friends whom you feel reasonably sorry for once shit goes south. And does it ever go south, as the killer racks up an impressive body count. Interestingly, Pavia doesn’t want to delight in this—again, this isn’t a glib splatter movie, and he withholds a certain measure of sympathy for the victims here. The final five minutes are haunting portrait of trauma that firmly entrenches the film’s mean streak: Fender Bender is bleak and nasty as hell. Pavia captures an inexplicable, terrifying burst of violence and its decimating effect on those who will be left to reckon with it. If the preceding 80 minutes didn’t make it clear enough, this denouement solidifies Pavia’s commitment to crafting the best slasher movie possibly can.
I’m not sure why it’s taken Pavia nearly twenty years to helm a movie after the (supremely underappreciated) Night Flier, but Fender Bender proves he’s still got the chops. Hell, considering the film’s ending, I’d be okay if Pavia settled into a groove and turned this into a full-blown franchise: the potential is certainly there, especially since the premise and Sage’s killer could easily be mined for a few more movies. Maybe there’s time for The Driver to become an icon in his own time after all.
Fender Bender is the latest effort from what has become a promising team-up between Scream Factory and Chiller. A far cry from the junk that was once produced for that channel, it’s arguably its best offering so far; however, if you’re like me and stuck with a non-HD feed (thanks, DirecTV), you probably opted to skip its premiere to wait for its home video debut. The Blu-ray doesn’t disappoint, as it boasts two separate commentaries: Pavia joins Blumhouse.com editor Rob Galluzo for his track, while a trio of producers (Gus Krieger, Joshua Bunting, and Carl Lucas) have their own space. A 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, a trailer, and a TV spot provide the usual promotional material; more unconventional is a 38-minute reel of “Slashback” trailers for the slashers in Scream Factory’s library. The most interesting (or perhaps most curious) is the aforementioned VHS cut, which more or less replicates the defunct format’s aesthetic, right down to the vintage logos (the Scream Factory one is a hoot).
Since this cut crops the frame and degrades the picture quality, it’s obviously only recommended after watching the film properly; however, it’s a nifty little feature that I’d like to see Scream have some more fun with. Why not bring Briggs aboard to “host” films, much like Code Red and Scorpion have done with Maria Kanellis and Katarina Waters? (If nothing else, imagine how cool it would be if they could just include vintage Monstervision stuff—rights permitting, of course).
But I digress—what’s most important is that Fender Bender captures this vintage feel without any kind of gimmicks. It’s a throwback purely in the sense that it reminds us that we used to get competent, solidly-crafted slasher movies, and I hope Pavia and company keep providing such reminders.
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