On the scale of unpromising horror premises, “college kids trapped in house by maniac” has got to be in the top…one. So, when Kill Theory starts with a maniac being released by a doctor and we cut to a bunch of college kids in a van on a way to the Rich Kid’s dad’s lake house, I was not optimistic.
All the clichés are here: You got snotty Rich Kid, all around Good Guy, the Fat Dude, the Hyper Guy, and their girlfriends. You got the Level-Headed girl who loves Good Guy, and the kinky Curvy Girl who’s hooked up with Rich Kid but pines for lost love, Good Guy. Hyper Dude has the Sweet girlfriend. Fat Dude is, of course, alone, but Slutty Stepsister shows up at the lake house.
There is what seems to be an inordinate time spent on characterization in these opening scenes. This also didn’t fill me with hope.
Yet, when the first dead body shows up, not only does the story move in some unexpected ways, a lot of the earlier characterization shows up again as a plot point.
This movie is, sort of, Friday The 13th by way of Saw. You know, in a very real way, the Jigsaw Killer is not far removed from Jason, Freddy or Michael. He’s all-powerful in his anticipation of the characters’ actions, and his ability to plan for them far in advance, and (more importantly for the movie’s purposes) his ability to lock them into a very simple moral dilemma.
The Maniac in this movie is not quite so sophisticated. His traps are simple and secondary.
The main tension is this: Mr. Maniac (Kevin Gage, who could easily do a bunch of sequels to this, a la Tobin Bell) spent three years in an institution because on a mountain climbing expedition, he cut loose three of his friends to save his own skin. (I’m not sure how that’s illegal but play along.)
His exceedingly annoying psychiatrist (working actor Don McManus, whom you recognize without being able to name, and who actually manages to be irritating on a Richard-Dreyfuss-in-What-About-Bob? scale) has taken exception to Mr. Maniac’s insistence that anyone would do the same thing he did, and in his smug, wanna-punch-him-in-the-face way demands that while Mr. Maniac is no longer a threat to society, he does need more therapy.
Mr. Maniac plans to prove his side of the argument by putting the college kids to the following test: If one of them is left alive in the house at dawn, that person goes free. If more than one is left alive, they all die.
The kids are pretty good actors, though I was really confused at first because I thought they were high school kids. But they looked far too old and they acted like college kids. Then, yeah, it was made clearer later on, but, to be honest they’re largely too old for that, too. (It doesn’t matter much, but I did notice, and I’m not the most observant in this area. Theo Rossi, whom I’ve dubbed “Hyper Kid”, is 34! He’s in good shape for a middle-aged man!)
It’s not, I don’t think a huge acting challenge, for the most part. There’s a lot of low-key stuff. Curvy Girl Ryanne Duzich has a relatively tough part, having to be both sexy and vulnerable and in love and desperate, all in turns. (Also, she’s not that curvy but wears what must’ve been a pretty dang uncomfortable bra the whole time.) Fat Kid Daniel Franzese (30 years old, by the way) has to do a lot of whining and cowering, but manages to be sympathetic all the same.
I’d lay the credit for the success of this movie at the feet of writer Kelly C Palmer, who was in the audience. Within some very narrow constraints, she does a good job of avoiding a lot of the horror movie trope traps. And there’s a strong undercurrent about the characters’ basic goodness: They don’t, for the most part, want anything to do with the Maniac’s plan—and willingness to go along comes from some surprising arenas.
The other guy who gets the credit is Chris Moore. Now, this is Moore’s first outing as a director, but if you ever watched “Project Greenlight”, he was the incredibly nice, remarkably professional producer who made sure that the movies actually got made.
Moore handles this movie really well. Most of the directors picked for “Project Greenlight” were sort of flamboyant. Moore handles this confidently without being flashy. You never think, “Oh, that was clever.” The shots tell the story without pulling you out of it. His pacing, along with the humor and twists of the script make this above par.
‘course, we get the old “so far out we can’t get cell phone reception” gag, along with the phone lines being cut, but Something Must Be Done about the phone thing. Still, recommended.