The essence of Maria Bissell’s feature debut How to Deter a Robber is captured in its opening monologue, where main character Madison (Vanessa Marano) dramatically describes the death of her childhood goldfish, punctuated with the beautiful phrase “Suck my dick, Emily Dickinson.” Right off the bat, Bissell is signaling that this is going to be a comedic rollercoaster that is a little bit funny, a little bit scary, a little bit sad and full of heart.
Madison is 18, with a sweet but naïve boyfriend named Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), an unsupportive and overbearing mother (Gabrielle Carteris), and a sweet and understanding uncle (Chris Mulkey), all of whom have come together at their family cabin in northern Wisconsin for Christmas. Madison and her mother are constantly at odds, shown immediately as her mother doesn’t believe Madison read the meat thermometer correctly and thinks the turkey needs a few more minutes in the oven. They each try to grab the tray out of the other’s hands and, as can be expected, the turkey goes flying into the trash.
The ensuing family dinner reveals this is nothing new, though her uncle Andy is often on her side, protecting her from an abrasive mother and oblivious stepdad. As Madison and Jimmy storm out of dinner, they spy a light on in the neighboring cabin. Thinking the cabin is haunted, they decide to break in to hold a séance. None of this is done with much sincerity as they’re really just two bored teenagers trying to find something to do. But they aren’t the only ones who broke in next door; they discover the cabin had been robbed, but they’re getting blamed for it.
As they sit in the family cabin with Andy and wait to learn if law enforcement buys their story, they become the robbers’ next victims. Enter Christine (Abbie Cobb) and Patrick (Sonny Valicenti), two amateurs trying to make enough money to move to New Orleans by breaking into vacant cabins. But as a hostage situation unfolds, they are in over their heads and everyone knows it. While up until this point the film primarily focuses on Madison, it frequently cuts to short interludes with the approaching robbers to add an air of fear and foreboding. Yes, Madison and her family’s verbal sparring is entertaining, but Bissell doesn’t want us to forget the looming danger of the titular robbers. Comedy and Christmas carols are replaced with darker colors and a sullen electronic score when the masked pair are shown in shadow packing their guns and pawning off goods at antique stores. Tension builds and builds towards what is expected to be an explosive confrontation, but once again expectations are subverted as the two worlds collide not into a bloody mess but a tangle of confused and terrified limbs.
How to Deter a Robber has the DIY traps of Home Alone and the dry, dark humor of Fargo; it is a home invasion survival movie that takes the expectations of the subgenre and maintains the terror of being robbed, while also making it funny. As Madison and Jimmy prepare for the impending burglary, they go around booby-trapping the house. But these aren’t Kevin McCallister-level contraptions. Instead, it’s a kitchen knife duct taped to a Roomba, bubble wrap under the rugs and paint cans hiding in cabinets. It’s not only the gadgets and gags that are funny, but it’s the sincerity with which they set them up. They are so proud of the weaponized Roomba and really feel like what they’re doing will save them.
However, the film’s humor isn’t rooted in slapstick, but rather an empathetic lens that wants us to laugh at these characters while also understanding that everyone is trying their best. It just might not be good enough. Everyone, even the robbers, has their own seemingly good motivations—escaping to New Orleans, having some kind of life experience—even as they completely stumble their ways through it. Despite being a robber, Christine makes small talk with the group, offering them water and accepting advice on how best to tie them up. She initially seems like a dumb character and elicits laughter at her naivety, but the film’s script goes deeper to make her more than just an airhead, instead giving us a young woman with a dream and no other way to achieve it.
Bumbling robbers aside, Bissell also smartly navigates expectations of the home invasion horror with Madison and her uncle, who embody the two different approaches to the subgenre: Unaware couple trying to survive (think The Strangers) and surprisingly rugged survivalist fighting back (think You’re Next). As Madison and Jimmy are making booby traps, Andy is carefully planning where they can hide. He rolls his eyes at the kids and their dramatic reaction to the impending robbery as they scramble around the cabin with bottle rockets and bubble wrap. But, following the theme of people trying their best, both groups stumble and ultimately land in the inexperienced laps of Christine and Patrick.
Underneath turkey fights, armed Roombas and poorly tied knots, How to Deter a Robber is a story about the pervasive sadness that comes with trying to understand your place in life. Every joke contains a twinge of desperation as each character tries to mask their true feelings with comedy; they are always wearing armor to protect themselves from revealing any vulnerabilities. Bissell creates a unique horror-comedy that isn’t just interested in laughs and scares, but also in looking at the humanity of her characters that truly believe they are trying their best.
Director: Maria Bissell
Writers: Maria Bissell
Stars: Vanessa Marano, Benjamin Papac, Abbie Cobb, Sonny Valicenti, Gabrielle Carteris, Chris Mulkey
Release Date: June 16, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.