'Thriller': Film Review

Is the title supposed to be ironic?

A clique of high schoolers is stalked by the past in Dallas Jackson's debut.

Middle-school cruelty leaves a trail of corpses in Dallas Jackson's Thriller, a revenge-themed slasher pic set at L.A.'s Compton High School. Four years after a prank-gone-wrong sends an innocent boy to jail, those who caused the trouble see the just-released youth skulking everywhere they go. But Chauncey Page (Jason Woods) is no Michael Myers, and this Homecoming killing spree is far from Halloween in almost every respect. Notable only for a cast consisting solely of people of color (and for the involvement of RZA), the pic fails to deliver what its title promises.

At 13, Chauncey was a big shy kid with a stutter and a crush on a sweet girl named Lisa. Classmates convinced Lisa to lure him into an abandoned house, where they all donned masks to scare and chase the poor boy they called "retarded." In the confusion, one of the taunters fell to her death, and Chauncey was convicted.

Four years later, Lisa (Jessica Allain) is haunted by guilt, but hardly crippled by it: The popular girl is a frontrunner to be named queen of the Homecoming dance, where her date will be star athlete Ty (Mitchell Edwards), a football player with NFL aspirations.

A script by Jackson and Ken Rance moves dutifully through its getting-to-know-you phase, introducing many other members of Lisa's circle of friends: Ty's erratic and jealous ex-girlfriend Gina (Paige Hurd); Dre (Tequan Richmond), the rich kid who pretends to be a thug; Kim (Pepi Sonuga), whose sister was the child who died in that prank; Derrick (Luke Tennie), who pines for Kim and thinks she's "innocent" despite all evidence; and several others. Amusingly, they all attend class under the watchful eye of RZA, a principal who isn't afraid of inviting a tough guy to punch him.

Then someone reports that Chauncey's home, wordlessly walking the streets in black jeans and a hoodie, and we realize we may have wasted our time learning all these kids' names.

But how are we meant to respond to the ensuing kill spree? As the hooded figure follows his victims, neither his body language nor the film's editing inspires fear or anticipation; the murders themselves are ho-hum. One early scene sends mixed signals: When Chauncey stands across the street from Dre, points at him and then draws his finger across his throat in a "you're dead" pantomime, are we supposed to giggle? Nothing that follows suggests that's the goal, but it doesn't scare us either.

The script makes a couple of conspicuous mentions of the dangers faced by people in this community, especially by young black men. These feel cheap when tossed into such lightweight genre material, a slasher scenario that is obviously color-blind. The picture's big twist will likely be spotted even by those who aren't looking, and it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny — but another, truly surprising bit, involving Kim's memories of her dead sister, frustratingly goes nowhere. Maybe Jackson should've thought a little harder when deciding how the sins of the past should be punished, and who should play psycho killer.

Production company: Divide/Conquer
Cast: Jessica Allain, Luke Tennie, Tequan Richmond, Paige Hurd, Chelsea Rendon, Mitchell Edwards, Pepi Sonuga, Jason Woods, Maestro Harrell, Michael Ocampo, Mykelti Williamson
Director: Dallas Jackson
Screenwriters: Dallas Jackson, Ken Rance
Producers: Greg Gilreath, Adam Hendricks, Dallas Jackson, John H. Lang
Executive producers: Zac Locke, RZA
Director of photography: Mac Fisken
Production designer: John Zachary
Costume designer: Janelle Nicole Carothers
Editor: John Quinn
Composer: RZA
Casting director: Kimberly Hardin

86 minutes