The horror genre, particularly slasher films, has been long associated with racial stereotypes. Whether it’s the sole black cast member in a group of white soon to be victims or playing on the horror in joke about the black guy always dying first, these stereotypes and more have been around for longer than I can recall. In his directorial debut, co-writer / director Dallas Jackson attempts to change the course of those conversations by having a slasher film take place in Compton, with a cast of black and Hispanic teenagers and incorporating current social issues such as police brutality and the murder rate of young black men as part of the dialogue and plot throughout the film. Thriller was a really ambitious film that hit its mark at times and missed at others, but all things considered it was a decent slasher flick.
Thriller is a hard film to give a fair review to in a lot of ways. It never truly felt like a slasher film. It was low on gore (which isn’t a prerequisite by any means) but more importantly, low on suspense. The film never really seemed to be able to blend the two things it was aiming to be—socially conscious and horror. It almost felt like a tug of war of identity at times. The characters by slasher standards were great. Sure, they were cheesy at times and some of the dialogue felt really forced (not to mention slang that already felt painfully outdated) but they also felt three-dimensional and we got to spend enough time with them before the body count started piling up to see them as more than victims being lead to slaughter.
The premise of Thriller was that a group of kids lead a boy they knew into an abandoned house in Compton. The boy, Chauncey, is chased by the kids, who are all wearing masks yelling his name, resulting in Chauncey running upstairs out of fear and pushing one of the kids over the railing, killing her. The kids tell the police that Chauncey killed the girl and he goes to juvenile lockup for the next four years. The film picks up with his release from jail and the kids believe that he is stalking them as payback. We see the kids, now seniors in high school, facing both issues specific to growing up in Compton as well as issues that all high school seniors face, with Homecoming rapidly approaching. The introduction to these characters was probably my favorite part of the film, as this was really when the blend of a socially conscious film and slasher film seemed to work the best.
The biggest compliment I can give this film is that it dared to be different. It didn’t aspire to be the kind of horror films that Jordan Peele is making. This was more in the realm of Halloween or I Know What You Did Last Summer only with a culturally diverse cast that spoke of issues people are actually talking about. Ambition aside, the film lacked in the actual horror department. Part of the trade-off in films like these, is that we don’t get as much character development in exchange for the creation of suspense and the building up of the villain. This film merely gave us a hooded figure following people around for the most part. We never feared the villain because we didn’t have much reason to. In a lot of ways, this was a movie about kids getting ready for Homecoming who happened to have a dude in a hoodie following them around.
Something that did help with the horror vibes was the amazing score provided by RZA, who also had a role in the film as Principal Hurd. RZA’s score, while completely modern, also had a throwback sound to it that reminded me of many ’80s slasher films that I love so much. RZA acting wise was also a standout and in just a few scenes stole the show. I will admit to not seeing the twist ending coming but this was a twist that did not need to happen. Had Chauncey been the killer as expected, there could have been a message here about this young man going to jail unfairly and coming out a killer. That felt like a logical conclusion that went along with the other social themes brought up here, to have a commentary on America’s social justice system, in particular with young black men. To have someone else be the killer really felt cheap, a twist just for the sake of having a twist and completely unneeded.
I’ve definitely seen worse slasher flicks and I give Thriller a lot of credit for trying to be different. While I don’t think this will be a film people talk about for much longer, it does make me wonder what impact it could have on other filmmakers. Will more slasher films attempt to be more culturally inclusive? Can someone take the real life horrors of living in certain urban areas and more effectively create suspense there? Horror and slasher films in particular don’t have to be always in a realm of fantasy, as we’ve seen with franchises like Scream. Thriller showed us that horror has a lot of room to grow but ultimately, this film didn’t hit its full potential. Perhaps it kicked in a door for something better to come along next though.