From Lord of the Flies to Battle Royale and beyond, there’s been a long and frequently fruitful cinematic tradition of demented young people gruesomely picking each other off in the name of survival. The latest reiteration of this blood-soaked genre is Bad Kids Go to Hell. Adapted by director Matthew Spradlin form his own graphic novel, the film takes its basic premise from The Breakfast Club (and even features Judd Nelson in a bit role): Six kids are serving eight hours in Saturday detention in the library of their elite prep school, though unlike The Breakfast Club, they’re all amoral bastards—and, also, the library appears to be haunted, built on land stolen from, in a retro-horror touch, a Native American spirit.
The least bastard-y (and the least rich) of the bunch is the troubled Matthew (Cameron Deane Stewart), who appears to have gotten into the school based on genuine academic merit rather than parental largesse. He’s not actually on the detention list (he’s just been expelled), but he shows up anyway, and takes on the role of hero after a sinister guidance counselor (a well-cast Jeffrey Schmidt) and his creepy janitor sidekick lock the kids in the library. Soon the detainees are turning feral and seemingly paranormal activity grips the school, with insects swarming throughout the building and the students dying off one by one, hence the film’s marketing materials name-dropping Ten Little Indians.
Bad Kids Go to Hell is in part a mystery, even if it’s only of the “Who’s killing off these horrendous young people?” sort, cloaked in the trappings of the horror-comedy, though it’s neither particularly scary nor funny—or subtle, consisting mostly of teenagers lobbing colorful insults at one another, or one kid, upon emptying his bowels, proclaiming, “Release the Kraken!” Its strength ultimately lies in the mystery we’re made to puzzle out, its nuances delivered in well-paced dribs and drabs. The library in which the kids are imprisoned is a crime scene in which the transgressions are ongoing and the key to everyone’s survival lies in the decipherment of the clues that the library provides them. As they search through old newspapers, they begin to discover the history of the library, which in turn prompts a series of personal revelations about the backgrounds of each student and how they could have played into the paranormal curse that seems to have befallen them.
The visual style of Bad Kids Go to Hell owes a great deal to its origins as a graphic novel, though the film never quite reaches Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s delirious, whimsical, and sprightly apotheosis of style. The cartoonishness of Spradlin’s film is dark and visually ugly (browns and grays dominate the color palette) and it plants the characters and story firmly within the realm of the grotesque. This complements the story’s staunchly moralistic tone. These kids are selfish, unethical backstabbers with an almost psychopathological disregard for others, and when they casually boast about the corruption and violence that they can perpetrate because of their parents’ positions of influence, their getting their just desserts becomes perversely thrilling. Perhaps the film’s unlikely combination of didacticism and sexy teen slaughter signals a booming trend: the Occupy horror flick.