It seems the days of a major studio picking up something daring and outside of the norm that emerges from the indie circuit are long gone. Back in the ’90s there was a real drive to find new product produced cheaply that might be that break out hit after the success of Pulp Fiction. So we got Kevin Smith’s Clerks which became a huge cult hit, and then later we got The Blair Witch Project which became a massive box office success. Major studios like Miramax, Fox, Universal and newly minted ones like Artisan (later Lionsgate) trawled the festival circuit for years looking for the next big thing and took many gambles that didn’t pay off. These days some of the excitement of discovery is gone with many titles premiering at Sundance and then debuting on Netflix days later. There are only a small number of films bought by the studios and then held over until awards season. Many undiscovered gems then get overlooked, and never really get the acclaim they deserve. One such title caught somewhere between festival success and straight to DVD anonymity was Joseph Kahn’s Detention in the early point of this decade.
Joseph Kahn is primarily known as a music video auteur with perhaps his most well known work being for Eminem and Britney Spears. In 2003 he applied this visual kineticism to the frankly woeful Fast and the Furious on motorbikes film Torque and was met with a lot of ridicule thanks to a film that is borderline unwatchable. His follow up film came almost ten years later, and was produced on a small budget with Kahn having to call in a lot of favours in terms of the soundtrack and visual effects. In a place where audiences are crying out for something new and original, it’s a shame that Detention never found mainstream success. To sum up—its like Scream meets Donnie Darko in the middle of a post modern musical using well known pop songs, and even that description doesn’t fully describe the madness.
I’ll try and sum up the plot of Detention but its so loaded with incident and references that I probably will never do it justice. The film starts in a small American town so reminiscent of every town seen in a slasher movie. Someone dressed as the killer “Cinderhella” from a popular Saw like franchise starts killing the local teens and we then focus on a few characters in the local high school. Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) is the kid in school that everybody likes and manages to walk the line between nerd and popular. Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) is the borderline nerdy girl who pines after Clapton. Ione (Spencer Locke) is the popular cheerleader who is Clapton’s girlfriend who seems obsessed with the ’90s and Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley) is the jock bully who wants to beat up Clapton for being with Ione. The kids are all rattled by the murders that take place whilst simultaneously dealing with their feelings, UFO sightings, a time travelling bear, a body swap story going on in the background and one of them is actually part fly. Got it so far? Okay…
Detention is many things, self aware parody of a well worn genre, high school romance, gore soaked slasher movie but around the point where the final act begins, you start to realise what it is that Kahn is doing. Detention is a celebration, it’s a celebration of being young, a celebration of being different and above all, its a hymn to teenage culture of the last thirty years. The year 1992 becomes a focal point for reasons I won’t spoil and when the kids end up in the detention of the title Breakfast Club style, a sequence occurs when Kahn montages the dress styles and music of the times at pivotal years between 1992 and 2011 that is frankly joyous. It’s at this point where your nostalgia glands kick in, and you are either fully on board by now or you may well have given up.
Detention isn’t a perfect film, I have heard it called “Obnoxious” by many reviewers. There is a certain delivery to the wordy dialogue that tends to grate at times, like Joss Whedon being performed by a too enthusiastic amateur theatre group. The effects work is also sometimes below par for what is trying to be achieved and CGI gore and beheadings never really look great when you don’t have the budget to pull them off. For someone who seeks something outside of the norm and is constantly disappointed, it was like a breath of fresh air when I saw it in 2012. People will reject it because of the flaws mentioned above, but with the right mindset and an appreciation for all of the junky pop of recent years, it could end up being your new cult favourite.
It was perhaps too outside the box to ever really go mainstream. Marketed as a straight slasher and people would walk out baffled and then if you advertise the film for what it really is, you are never going to get that mainstream crowd anyway. Detention gained a few fans at festivals and a very limited theatrical run and then quietly appeared on VOD. As a result Detention languishes fairly underappreciated for what it is, and it really deserves a bigger fanbase, even if its for people hating it. Kahn would go on to direct a pretty good Power Rangers fan film that was removed from the internet due to copyright reasons and then later rap battle think piece Bodied, which thanks to its exclusive appearance on YouTube premium, is so far similarly underrated. Detention remains his best directorial work so far, if only for the fact that you probably haven’t seen anything like it before, and may never do again.