There’s been a prominent trend in horror to homage the classics while still making a unique product that elevates what made them great to begin with — from Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and more recently Us, to Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls and David Gordon Green’s remake of Halloween. Thriller, Blumhouse’s most recent release, attempts to call to teen slasher classics but loses the magic by taking itself too seriously.
Produced and scored by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Thriller is a Prom Night style slasher flick set in the streets of Compton. After a group of young bullies attempt to scare their outcast classmate Chauncey (Jason Woods), the prank turns deadly and he pushes one of the bullies off the second floor, where she falls to her death. Chauncey gets arrested and the bullies repress their guilt and move on with their lives.
The event resurfaces years later when Chauncey is released from jail. Now hell-bent on revenge, Chauncey attempts to off his bullies one by one during their homecoming weekend. Dallas Jackson’s debut feature has an ambitious goal of trying to both be a fun, teen slasher and a portrait of trauma and grief among young, marginalized communities — but it never truly embodies either one with much success.
None of the characters — from the various former bullies to Chauncey himself — have any real substance. The bullies, far removed from the attack, are focused on being teenagers at the most surface level: who’s dating who, who’s going to be homecoming king and queen and so forth. There are glimpses of depth from Derrick (Luke Tennie) who is frustrated with school and trying to succeed when his future is premeditated for him as a Black man in America — but that moment is fleeting and rarely examined to its full potential.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — especially in a typical teen slasher — but Thriller gives off the impression that it is more than that without actually delivering on that promise. The audience isn’t given anyone to root for, or at the very least care about — so when members of the group are killed, it feels hollow.
Chauncey also lacks development. He barely speaks after coming back from jail and mostly stays in the shadows, lurking and watching like a typical killer. But the audience never sees how jail affected him or made him into a ruthless killer — just that it must have, somehow. There are some intimate parts of his life shown, mostly his relationship to his alcoholic mother — but again, there is no real insight into his mind.
Thriller could have been a fun and harmless slasher, but it tries too hard to be something more than that. By attempting to be a serious slasher, Thriller loses all the charm of the fun camp and gore that makes teen slashers so great. Slashers don’t have to be complex to be effective — it’s often more fun when they forgo emotional depth to be entertaining — but Thriller is more of a chore to watch than something to sit back and enjoy.
There are kills that are genuinely funny — like when one of the group is napped out of a car while taking a slew of selfies outside of the homecoming dance — but it feels out-of-place in a film that is otherwise supposed to be commenting on deeper issues of race and violence.
In that way, Thriller is stuck between two polar opposites — trying to be both a lawless slasher and something that is somehow more emotionally introspective. This is an admirable and ambitious balance to make, the problem is that these two sides are wildly imbalanced.
There are some technical merits of this film, however. RZA’s score is by far the standout with themes that both properly underscore the landscape and bring life and modernization to an older style of genre film.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Thriller’s writing and lack of real direction undermines any positives that the music brings to the table. Out of the various Blumhouse productions available on streaming platforms, you might be better off skipping Thriller and picking something else.