How is it that American teenagers aren't extinct? High school students (the jocks, the brains, the princesses, the criminals, the basket cases), long the favored prey of serial killers, somehow manage to fight back from the brink yet again in Detention, a bright and witty genre mash-up. This time, director and music-video maestro Joseph Kahn, who co-wrote the film's screenplay with Mark Palermo, makes sure the nubile would-be victims give as good as they get.
In the film's information-overload opening, a wannabe prom queen, Taylor (Alison Woods), prattles on for a homemade video about her self-declared beauty, intelligence, talent, and charisma while slamming doors on siblings, parents, and pet kittens just before a fatal meeting with a slasher named Cinderhella. Unlike most movie scream queens, this mean girl views impending death as an obstacle to all that she's entitled to. She doesn't shriek in terror so much as scream at the masked killer—for ruining her eyeline and her perfect morning.
Cut to the halls of Grizzly Lake High, where nerdy Riley Lewis (Shanley Caswell) pines for pal Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), all the while suffering the come-ons of her lab partner and fellow geek, Sander (Aaron David Johnson). Meanwhile, Clapton's got eyes only for another prom-queen-in-waiting, Ione (Spencer Locke), ''an old soul trapped in a painfully hot cheerleader body." Old soul indeed, as Ione has an inexplicable nostalgia for the 1990s. ''It's the new 1980s!'' she enthuses, with her big hair, of the decade's music, the pre-Internet, and pre-mobile phone era that contrasts, like flannel shirts to yoga gear, with the endlessly self-narrating and self-promoting present.
And this is a present in which nothing, to the high school hive mind, can get in the way of the Grizzly Lake spring formal: not a slasher murderer like Cinderhella, and certainly not a lockdown order from Principal Verge (Dane Cook, cast amusingly against type), a dweeby wet blanket who'd like to throw everyone, including A students like Riley, into Saturday detention. Riley is also not exempt from ridicule because of her looks. When she staggers away, broken legged, from an encounter with Cinderhella, nobody believes her. ''You're not banging enough to be murdered,'' sneers Ione. ''Victims live in McMansions. You live in a bungalow.''
Yet Detention is more than a mash-up of The Breakfast Club and sly horror movies like Scream. Kahn funded this sharp looking, ultra low-budget indie with his own savings, and you get the feeling that he's going for broke in every sense. There's so much fizz on screen and in the air (the sound design and music choices are as witty as the art direction) that it's almost too much to take in. The screenplay also flies in all directions.
Detention is broken down into numerous Roman-numeral-ed chapters—all with increasingly absurd titles—that riff on body-switching movies, time travel a la Back to the Future, and more. In one, Clapton's crush on the head cheerleader puts him in the crosshairs of the school bully, a footballer who responds to accusations of steroid use with his life story: "The Lonely Ballad of Billy Nolan," presented by Kahn as a sped-up version of The Fly. ''And that's exactly how I remember it,'' Billy (Parker Bagley) cries as he finishes, vomiting acid. And there's a lot more spew to come.
For all its flash, Detention reveals a director with rare good heartedness for the teen film. When Clapton takes a besotted Riley for a moonlight ride on his skateboard, the journey's as erotic as anything in Twilight, and more bittersweet; this is how first love hurts. For gorehounds lured in by the poster and trailer, Detention will be disappointingly un-gorey. But for pop-culture pilgrims intent on discovering an underground prize, look no further.