Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Curse of Downers Grove: Most Likely to Die . . .

Thanks to the original Poltergeist film, nobody wants to build on ancient burial sites anymore. Unfortunately, Chrissie Swanson’s high school was prefabbed in the 1960s or 1970s, when they were not so particular about defiling sacred ground. As a result, a legend of a curse hangs over the student body, inevitably given credence to many by the annual untimely death of a senior during the week before graduation. Swanson is not superstitious, but a psycho-stalker gives her very real and immediate cause for concern in Derick Martini’s The Curse of Downers Grove (trailer here), co-adapted by Bret Easton Ellis, which opens this Friday in select theaters.

It is sad enough living in a burg called Downers Grove. With a name like that, suicide and depression should be even bigger problems than curses. Swanson is too level-headed for any of that. She is a defiant unbeliever, despite her periodic visions of irate Native Americans. Inexplicably, her single mom choses the notorious curse week to gallivant off with her beau for a romantic getaway. Sure, she is entitled to lead her own life, but if you live in Downers Grove, some things ought to be pretty high on your worry list.

Of course, this gives Swanson’s obnoxious younger brother and her trampy BFF Tracy an opportunity to throw a blow-out bash. However, Swanson is in no mood to party after the local college’s star quarterback tries to pull a Cosby on her at a frat mixer. Swanson manages to fight him off, but gauges an eye out in the process. Evidently, this will not help his NFL prospects much. As a result, the now one-eyed Chuck lurches into full blown psychosis. The Swanson siblings, Tracy, and Bobby, Chrissie’s sensitive auto mechanic crush, will have to hunker down and try to whether the storm.

In some ways, Downers Grove is sort of like a throwback to Kevin Williamson’s glory years, but Elis and Martini deserve surprising credit for not over-writing it. They never over-reach trying to sound hip and ironic. Frankly, the film is pretty grounded, all things considered. Although it is nowhere near as effective as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, but both films portray the young characters’ relationships with similarly realistic complications and ambiguities.

Lead actress Bella Heathcote is not exactly Maika Monroe either, but she is still refreshingly down-to-earth and forceful. Neither a shrinking violet nor a scream queen, she shows some real screen presence and backbone. As Chuck, Kevin Zeggers goes nuts pretty effectively. On the other hand, Lucas Till feels out of place playing Bobby, as if he were afraid he might get some grease on his clothes.

Swanson’s “if I had but only known” voice-over narration is ridiculously heavy-handed, yet it sort of fits the occasion for precisely that reason. Although it is a relatively straight forward genre movie, Downers Grove is not as horrifying as The Canyons or as nihilistic as American Psycho. In fact, it is reasonably effective in a VOD kind of way, arguably representing Ellis’s best film work to date. While not a classic by any means, The Curse of Downers Grove holds a strange, somewhat guilty, retro-nostalgic late 1990s appeal for horror fans when it releases this Friday (8/21) in selected theaters and on iTunes.