A general principle of fiction, and in particular of horror stories, is that believable characters ought to act rationally. It’s considerably easier to care about a person when one sees that their behavior is governed by at least a degree of logic and reason. Sometime during the early ’80s, however, it became fashionable for the lusty teens and co-eds of low-budget slashers to do quite the opposite, darting upstairs instead of through the front door or investigating the ominous basement solo instead of hollering for help. Such gaffes were largely dictated by lazy screenwriting, a desire for shortcuts to dismemberment that elevated efficiently grizzly deaths above the feelings of those who suffered them, which is why we all remember the killer, but not the names or inner lives of the victims. Stupidity became conventional and the slasher stagnated until 1996, when Wes Craven’s winking meta horror flick Scream was released. Suddenly, in the wake of the film’s runaway success, it wasn’t enough for a masked maniac to dispatch airheads by the dozen; the airheads were now savvy, more self-ware, and the phrase “We should split up” could no longer be uttered in earnest. We had entered the post-slasher age.
Rites of Spring, a new horror film by indie filmmaker Padraig Reynolds, yearns desperately for the slasher styles of the 1980s, or at least of 1995. His film has no interest in self-awareness, and in fact wears stupidity as a sort of badge of honor. Of course, roughly half of the film’s running time is dedicated to a kidnapping subplot that doesn’t operate as horror at all, but awkwardly grafting a rote thriller atop the slasher stuff is a gimmick as old as the genre itself—and, yes, it’s nearly identical to the gimmick already implemented this year, with way more imagination and wit, by Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. One senses during the film’s straightforward horror sections that the material is intended to be essentially classical in style, a deliberate throwback in look and feel to the genre’s golden age. Hence the film’s ample stupidity, which the generous will call affected.
Is there such a thing, in the horror tradition, as a kind of “classical idiocy”? The characters in this film so often do precisely the opposite of what any reasonable person would do in the given situation that one begins to feel, at times, as though the director were deliberately inciting our irritation, provoking us to teeth-gnashing, remote-hurling rage. Or to laughter, actually, if one doesn’t mind disengaging entirely (it isn’t difficult). Even the most patient and forgiving horror admirers will find it risible when, in a fit of hysterics, the film’s Final Girl squirms in her seat as a menacing baddie begins smashing her car windshield in with an ax, her fear apparently preventing her from hitting the gas, or when she decides to hide in a secluded and escapeless bathroom rather than flee the building altogether. When, after our helpless protagonist has driven away for what appears to be several miles, the killer catches up on foot in only seconds, are we meant to understand that the impossibility is the point, a knowing nod to an outdated slasher cliché? Is this vacuity simply a matter of convention? It doesn’t matter in the end, as the result is miserable either way.