The gap between a good high school horror flick and a mediocre one is about a mile long, but the difference between a mediocre high school horror flick and a slightly less mediocre genre effort is almost completely indistinguishable. After a while, all these non-descript, hormone-ridden teens start to blend together into the same plaid-shirt-wearing stereotypes, whether they’re partaking in illegal activities or being hacked to bits by the next slasher hopeful.
Unfortunately, The Curse Of Downers Grove is yet another mediocre high school nightmare that’s no different than the last ten similarly scoped thrillers about evil town curses, despite being penned by American Pyscho author Bret Easton Ellis. The story is adapted from Michael Hornburg’s 90s novel Downers Grove, with indie filmmaker Derick Martini stepping behind the camera to take over directorial duties – though you’re probably just here because of Ellis’ name. Either way, this hodgepodge of talents comes together to spin a chilling tale of graduation day bad luck, but the final product presents itself in an incredibly stiff and rigid manner, like each actor is reading directly from Hornburg’s pages instead of reciting lines from memory.
Bella Heathcote stars as Chrissie Swanson, a high school senior trying to survive through her graduation ceremony – and she’s not just being dramatic. A hellish curse is said to reside over Downers Grove, claiming the life of one senior each year before their graduation day. Some people believe the seniors are dying because of their own moronic decisions, but others believe the town’s Native American past might have something to do with the grisly deaths. Either way, Bella finds herself in an unsafe scenario after fighting off the unwanted advances of a stud football star (Kevin Zegers), which makes her believe the curse may have chosen her as this year’s sacrifice. If the curse is actually real, that is.
From the get-go, we find ourselves transported to another indiscriminate small-country town filled with the same school kiddies we’ve been introduced to time and time again. The meat-head jocks can practically get away with murder, the stoners exhibit absolutely no qualities of preservation, and not a single child uses cognitive problem solving skills. We’re supposed to believe that a haunting curse causes the death of unsuspecting seniors every year, yet we immediately observe a drunken buffoon lose grip and plummet to his death after falling off a water tower. There is a curse on Downers Grove – just alcohol abuse, brainlessness, and a janky paranormal story that’s never implemented farther than black-and-white flashes of supposed dream sequences. There’s never a real mystery, just boring suggestions and baseless finger-pointing.
The problem is that Derick Martini doesn’t make us believe Downers Grove is a true-blue American town. His locale blandly represents a tiny stereotypical microcosm only where The Curse Of Downers Grove takes place – one that lacks realism and depth. By now we’ve become used to easy movie plot devices – but that doesn’t excuse them. A crooked cop who controls an entire police force? The mousy normal girl who becomes a gun-toting killer? Numerous inner dialogues that sound like emotionless pep-talks from so many after-school specials from long ago? You’ll find all these nonsensical outcomes and more in Ellis’ screenplay, which borrows from so many streamlined thrillers with equally disappointing outcomes.
Wavering production gaffes also find their way into The Curse Of Downers Grove, which suck us even farther out of Chrissie’s world. When action elements heighten during the film’s rushed, unfocused finale, Martini’s fight choreography direction leaves plenty of space between an assailant’s fist and its intended victim. It also doesn’t help that each supposed haymaker sounds like the effects guy is just punching a bag of sand, which removes every human element out of what should be the film’s exciting climax. But by this point we’ve already had our patience tested, and besides a brief bit of brutal shotgun justice, the let-downs are expected, and easily shrugged off.
Everything about The Curse Of Downers Grove oozes mediocrity, and that’s right down to the performances. You’ll find the most natural turns from Penelope Mitchell and Martin Spanjers, the fun-loving druggies simply looking for a good time, but Heathcote and Kevin Zegers never establish the tense repertoire between rapist and victim. Nothing actually happens, since Chrissie is able to fight off Chuck (the hopeful NFL QB), but his vengeful wishes stalk her around every corner – because he loves her? Or maybe it’s the curse CONVINCING Chuck he loves her? This aspect of the story is never made fully clear, and we never truly understand why Chuck is such a psychopath past being abused by his power-hungry dad (Tom Arnold). All we know is Chuck is an evil, stupid bro who we hate, and Chrissie’s new boyfriend (played without enthusiasm by Lucas Till) is the nice guy we like. Pretty easy.
Then, once you think The Curse Of Downers Grove couldn’t possible throw a curveball, they do. Not in the form of a tremendous reveal, but in a religious turn that ends the film on a very strange, existential note that’s ill-fitting whatever dark atmosphere the previous hour and a half had attempted to establish. You know, the whole possible murder mystery that the cops just couldn’t get involved in because their hands were tied? Apparently that’s how you create tension – by removing reality and reason to permit a deadly (ridiculous) scenario.
Oh well, it’s not like any of this will matter once The Curse Of Downers Grove is overshadowed when the next generic pattern is cut from the same preppy cloth, and we’re here having the same conversation about a small-town mystery without any intrigue, thrills, or much life at all.
The Curse Of Downers Grove is just another lackluster high-school-based thriller like the twenty billion that have come before it.