Netflix teams up with horror trendsetters Blumhouse to release Thriller, a Compton-based teen horror film directed by Dallas Jackson. Eight kids lure a sweet boy with a stutter into an abandoned house. Once inside, they dawn masks in an attempt to scare him. Frightened, Chauncy (Jason Woods) pushes one of the kids over a stair railing, and they fall to their death. All Black and Latinx kids growing up on LA’s westside, they’re aware of the consequences. They all agree to tell the police that Chauncy alone was responsible. Chauncy’s sent to prison for four years. Now he’s out and looking for revenge.
Thus begins Thriller, a film that feels like it’s been looking for a home for ten years and only now just found one. It’s not the premise which ages the film; plenty of teen horrors begin in a similar manner. It’s that the film makes small mistakes that might not have been mistakes a decade ago. Let’s start with the number of kids at the inciting incident. Eight kids, plus the victim makes it difficult to keep track of who did what, when. It also leaves the writers very little time to flesh out the kids beyond the stereotypes they inhabit.
This is especially unfortunate considering that, with this cast, the film had real potential to be an iconic teen fright fest. Talent like Vanessa Bell Calloway (Jackie in What’s Love Got to Do With It) and Maestro Harrell (Randy Wagstaff from HBO’s The Wire) are a small part of a talented cast. Lead Jessica Allain makes an excellent scream queen as Lisa Walker. Described as a “Ghetto goody two shoes,” Lisa lured Chauncy into the building. Years later, she still struggles with bad dreams about her misdeeds, but it hasn’t stopped her from dating the best wide receiver in the county or being nominated for homecoming queen.
Here lies one of the film’s largest problems—the characters aren’t affected by their trauma. Nearly the entire group brushes off initial fears of Chauncy’s return. A natural reaction to many situations, denial always find a way to manifest itself in other places. For a moment, it looks like Tequan Richmond’s character, Andre Dixon, might fill that role. He’s an angry boy putting on a “thug mentality” despite the fact that he and his parents no longer live in Inglewood. (They’ve moved to Baldwin Hills.)
His principal (RZA) attempts to physically beat Andre into understanding the opportunities he’s been given, while simultaneously degrading him, in a very confusing scene. “I’m tired of trifling ass, pants-sagging, weed-smoking little negroes trying to act hard,” he barks at the student he just punched in the gut. Then in dialogue that fills ripped from a ’90s inner-city school reformation tale, Andre worries, in hard statistics, that he’ll be killed by a Blood or a Crip. Of course, gang violence still affects kids all across the United States, but films like Dope better explore how kids struggle to balance the pressures of gang life, financial strife, and police violence on top of puberty. Andre’s anger is never justified outside of what happens to him in the office. Neither his home life, his walks to and from school, nor anything else help the audience understand Andre’s state of mind.
The stiff dialogue would be forgivable if the film lived up to its title. Not only is the set up typical, the film never deviates from a plot audiences have seen play out a hundred times. At the school dance, a hooded figure stalks the students. Behind the stage, where the prom king and queen are to be announced, the camera lands in a medium shot. In the foreground sits a firehose with an ax gently placed on top of the coil. The rest of the frame is an out-of-focus curtain. Gee, guess what happens next. They even do a Scream-style, who’s-under-the-mask reveal.
Because there are very few major storytelling risks, Thriller does not even hit the so-bad-it’s-good benchmark. No insane murders occur. Copious amounts of blood are nowhere to be found. In fact, most of the deaths don’t involve gore at all. It’s hard to decide who this movie’s target demographic was supposed to be. Modern teens, shucking gender norms and active in #MeToo, certainly would be turned off by the R-Kelly style appearance of the faux pop star, Unique (Chauncey Jenkins), who takes Kim Morris (Pepi Sonuga) to the homecoming dance and sleeps with her. (Kim’s sister died in the inciting incident, and she’s never been right since.)
Perhaps the film was meant to shine a light on the kids living in Compton. Chauncy, as he’s being hauled off to juvie, shouts, “I’ll get you for this!” to a scared Lisa. As a villain, Chauncy is defined mostly by a black hoodie and his height. His time in prison isn’t explored. His feelings post-incarceration are glossed over, and in the end, nothing more is revealed about who he is as a person. None of Hannibal Lecter’s charm or Jason’s horrifying quiet resonate in Chauncy. Tap dancing around the difficulties of escaping poverty, Lisa struggles to land a scholarship, her boyfriend hopes to escape via football, and the film never rewards or punishes or resolves either of their hopes.
The film industry should be clamoring for an all Black and Latinx teen horror movie. Both communities routinely support horror films, particularly the ones representing their cultural background. However, those films need to represent the youth of today, not the late ’90s. As an aspirational film with too many flaws to overlook, Thriller at best qualifies as an interesting attempt at bringing additional perspectives to horror. Given the potential of this particular niche of the horror genre, that also makes it quite the wasted opportunity.
Director: Dallas Jackson
Writer: Dallas Jackson, Ken Rance
Starring: Jessica Allain, Tequan Richmond, Chelsea Rendon, Mitchell Edwards, Pepi Sonuga, Maestro Harrell, RZA, Mykelti Williamson
Release Date: April 14, 2019 (Netflix)
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.