Editor’s note: Wolfman Josh is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and Movie Stream Cast. He is also a television producer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. You can follow Josh on Twitter: @IcarusArts
Lost After Dark starts out strong with a virginal “Survivor Girl,” played by Kendra Timmins, primping for her high school ball at what I swear is the same bedroom vanity as the one Jae uses in It Follows (and is probably the same one from Nancy’s bedroom in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Sideny’s bedroom in Scream as well). This is Adrienne and the year is 1984. Adrienne’s father comes in briefly to give us some backstory about her deadbeat mom and let us know what a protective parent he is before she’s off for the big dance–at least for awhile.
It’s not long before we discover that Adrienne’s actual plan for the evening is to ditch the dance, chaperoned by Robert Patrick in full “Principal Strickland” mode, and head for a cabin in the woods with a handsome collection of teen archetypes (read: cannon-fodder). But that plan is cut short as well when the teens’ ride breaks-down in the middle of nowhere and they split up to look for a nearby house that might have a phone that they could use or maybe a monstrous cannibal hungry for teen flesh. Can you guess which they find?
Before you gallop away on your high horse, remember that this 2015 film knows that it takes place in 1984 and it’s not just the crimped hair and rubrik’s cubes that give it away. This movie also has that roughly aged and (strategically) damaged film print look that was popularized with 2007’s Grindhouse and has continued to fill our screens with everything from Mexicans with machetes to hobos with shotguns. But Lost After Dark shares an even more significant characteristic with Planet Terror than the burns to light and the missing reels. This movie is–ever so slightly–self aware.
The film is flush with comedic tone, but there aren’t big jokes and there aren’t comedy set-pieces. We’re not laughing with these characters. No, the comedy comes from laughing at these characters and, more than that, the knowledge that the filmmakers and the audience are in on the joke. We’re amused that they stumble into every ham-fisted slasher cliché. We’re amused by scenes that make us feel like we’re watching a scene from some random Friday the 13th sequel we must have missed. We’re amused as we try to figure out whether actor Alexander Calvert was improvising a lot on set or if his cast mates just couldn’t keep it together when he performed his lines. We may even, on occasion, smile smugly to ourselves for recognizing familiar character names like Laurie, Jamie, Marilyn, Heather, Wes, Sean and Tobe. But sadly, all of this winking and nodding is ultimately to the film’s detriment.
It would only be a minor spoiler to tell you that the token black guy is not the first to bite it. It would even only be a minor spoiler to surprise you with the information that the previously-mentioned “Final Girl” is not, in fact, our final girl. Yes, it’s only a minor spoiler to tell you that the time spent on the deadbeat mom and the overprotective father in that early scene doesn’t ever pay off in any meaningful way in this movie. And the reason that those are only minor spoilers is because, despite exploding those tired tropes, this movie does not aspire to reinvent or even reinvigorate the slasher. Scream this is not. And maybe it is unfair that I kept waiting for it to become Scream (especially after the afore-mentioned missing reel seemed like it was leading to a twist that never came), but the established tone and wit lead me to assume that this film had some mighty grand designs. Turns out, not so much.
As near as I can tell, this movie simply wants to be an average ’80s slasher. In that, it succeeds … mostly. As I mentioned, the beginning sings all of the tried and true slasher tunes. The movie veers into a more modern feel in the middle of the movie, which is also where the film is at its weakest, but is back in full retro mode by the final scene (and what a final scene it is!). If mimicry was the mission, mission accomplished.
And although the storytelling and structure left me wanting, the writing is excellent when it comes to the intentionally trite dialog–especially as delivered by this cast.
In fact, I should probably mention at some point that one way in which this film eclipses the average ’80s slasher is in the superb casting. Other than Robert Patrick (and a brief cameo by Halloween II director Rick Rosenthal) you’d have to be paying pretty close attention to Canadian television to recognize most of these young actors—but every single one of these kids is great. Standouts for me were the funny and lovable Jesse Camacho as Tobe, the previously-mentioned possible-improviser Alexander Calvert as Johnnie, and smokin’ hot punk rock Marylin, played by Eve Harlow (hubba bubba), who I’ll be Googling later. But really, the entire teen ensemble is stellar. Even someone like Lanie McAuley, in the thankless role of Heather, manages to shine through a pretty one note character.
On the other hand, one big weakness in the cast for me was the baddie–Junior Joad–one in a long line of maniacal cannibal killers in these parts. As hulking as actor Mark Wiebe is, the look of his character Joad was more than a little weak. Though not unlike the mass and hair and beard of Tyler Mane’s second stab at Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the execution here was not nearly as striking. In fact, it was largely confusing. And a killer who doesn’t deliver is a big problem in a film like this. Having just watched Eli Roth’s cannibals explicitly devouring flesh in the broad daylight, squinting to see a guy (in what appeared to be a big fake beard) slurping something fleshy in the dark was a bit awkward and underwhelming. Not to mention … I have a beard. I know how hard it is to eat with that thing. That crap would be all over it! I have to think that even a blood-thirsty freak would be annoyed by a stray artery hanging from his flavor saver.
Having said that, despite my problems with the killer’s look, his kills are right on the money. We’ve got a nice mix of shocking and suspenseful, a reasonable mix of practical and CGI, and some atmospheric old school ’80s kills to boot.
Oh, did I mention that Lost After Dark is a retro ’80s throwback? It’s a detail that is difficult to miss with this flick. In fact, it is printed no less than four times on the cover of the DVD that I purchased. Although, to be fair, that is also the reason that I made the purchase. Specifically, it was the pull-quote from Dread Central which praised the film as “The Best 80’s Slasher Film That Wasn’t Filmed in the ’80s” that sealed the deal. But is it a good idea to tie the value of your film so inextricably to this one concept? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot since watching Lost After Dark. Being a filmmaker myself, I can’t help but think about the ways in which films are advertised and how the marketing strategies we create ultimately impact an audience’s viewing experience.
I’m going to be honest and say that I think this overt and relentless exploitation of Lost After Dark as ’80s homage had a negative impact on me as a viewer. For one, It Follows came out this very same year and (although intentionally timeless in period) deeply homaged the horror cinema of the ’70s and ’80s in a much more sophisticated way. Even with the knowledge that It Follows had twice the budget and a more experienced director at the helm (not to mention probably ten times the P&A budget) the comparison does Lost After Dark no favors. But more importantly, the knowledge that it was an homage imbued me with certain expectations that this film had something additive to contribute to the sub-genre. I think because of films like Scream, we expect an homage to bring with it some kind of evolution. Even with Planet Terror–or another Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn–we see a twist in the fabric of the storytelling. That’s not so with this film. For me, that was a disappointment. But I honestly believe that if I could somehow be convinced that I was watching a legitimate ’80s slasher, I would not have been disappointed.
Lost After Dark genuinely feels, for the majority of the film, like a undiscovered slasher from 1980. It wouldn’t be the best slasher of 1980. This is no Maniac or Friday the 13th or My Bloody Valentine. It’s no Prowler or The Burning or even Terror Train. But, I’ll tell you what … if you’d seen all of those and you liked them … and you found a Lost After Dark VHS tape sitting on a lonely shelf in the corner of your local video store … you’d have a really fun night with a typical ’80s slasher film ahead of you.
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