While it may not be anything revolutionary, the new indie horror-mystery “Reeker” is a fun, clever creeper that manages to squeeze humor, gore, and metaphysical intrigue into a tight, entertaining little package. Buoyed by a solid, creative script and an assortment of unusually fleshed-out characters, the film manages to overcome obvious comparisons to similar “group of idiots stuck in the middle of nowhere” films, and is ultimately a gore flick with surprising amounts of smarts and heart – not to mention a flat-out fun ride.
“Reeker” starts out with a bang, as a vacationing family in an SUV pastes a deer on a desert road and pulls over to assess the damage (“Thank god it’s a rental,” mutters the mom). The day is beautiful and bright, and aside from the bits of fresh carcass on the grill and blood covering the windshield, all seems right in the land of big sky and wide open spaces. Suddenly, a weird stench clouds the air, the family dog is mutilated, and dad stumbles out of the brush with half of his face missing. Junior screams from the front seat as mom gets pulled underneath the van by an unseen force. In short, this ain’t “Grand Canyon”.
But let’s not drop the comparison entirely – much like the Lawrance Kasdan ensemble drama (steam would come out of his ears if he heard this, I’m sure), one of the strengths of “Reeker” is in its characters, who are far more engaging than your standard crop of slasher knife-sharpeners. Writer/director Dave Payne doesn’t offer up your standard group of friends-‘til-the-end who encounter some sort of evil that will test their bond; instead, he gives us a group of virtual strangers who are sharing a ride to a desert rave. As the characters get to know one another, so do we – and as things in the desert get increasingly bizarre, the kids show their true colors. I’ll admit that initially just about every one of the characters annoyed the hell out of me – from slacker asshole Trip (Scott Whyte) to the steely no-nonsense Gretchen (Tina Illman) and everyone in-between, no one’s particularly likeable (except maybe the blind guy, played by Devon Gummersall of “My So-Called Life” – but really, how can you not like the blind guy, or anyone from “My So-Called Life”?). But it makes sense: they’re acting the way that strangers do when they meet in a group for the first time – they pose, they brag, they put on airs. In a refreshing change, the characters actually become more likeable as they go along – which is both realistic and breaks the standard (and pessimistic) rule that people break down and show their weaknesses in the face of danger.
From the get-go, the kids have a few problems on their hands: one, the seemingly stupid and unscrupulous Trip is trafficking a few life sentences worth of stolen E across the state; two, the certifiably batshit owner of said stolen E (Eric Mabius, in full-on Sam Rockwell mode) is hot on their trail; three, they run out of gas at a run-down motel, can’t get a cell phone signal, and can’t seem to find another living soul. In short, not exactly the “party of the year” they were expecting. As they wait for help, increasingly strange things start happening, and as the group begins to drift apart, one by one they are menaced by a bizarre-looking (and apparently foul-smelling) hooded creature with an armory of archaic, seemingly hand-made mechanical weapons – sort of like the creatures from “The Village” meet Data from “The Goonies”.
So what the hell can this Reeker thing be? The kids are apparently near Area Something-or-Other – could this be some sort of alien? Some supernatural force? Maybe even Ke Huy Quan? And what’s with the dead phones and the missing people? Payne and company keep enough balls in the air to keep the mysteries fresh and moving, and even though there are tons of clues as to what’s going on (the ending can be spotted miles away, if you’re looking for it), the elements are well laid-out and come together with a wet, satisfying “click”. I wish I could go into more detail on this, but the less that I reveal, the better – but I will say that even if someone blows the ending for you, the journey is still quite satisfying thanks to the attention to detail that is paid throughout.
Despite the decent gore quotient (there are missing body parts aplenty by the end) and plot twists, there’s also a good deal of well-placed and genuinely funny comedy – which is almost unheard of in a genre bursting with cheap lowbrow humor and ill-executed gags. Here the humor comes out of the ridiculousness of the characters’ predicament, not of the characters themselves – resulting in some refreshing and appropriate comedy that breathes some new life into a stock situation (a literal “sight” gag involving a vital emergency flare and the sole blind character is the stuff of Blake Edwards, not John Carpenter). We’re all sick of wisecracking, self-aware characters who serve as supposed “comic relief” in horror movies, and here the comedy is thankfully much more organic. I’m generally not a fan of humor in horror, but here it’s done right, for once – I don’t want to blow any of the gags, but the bit with the shatterproof glass gave me one of my first belly-laughs of the year (thanks, guys). Also, on a more personal note, I was relieved that the rave in question is never reached – I have a deep-seeded, animalistic hatred for club scenes and faux-raves in horror movies, and I was delighted that here it’s not forced upon us in all its glow-sticked glory.
Now, every silver lining has its cloud, and “Reeker” has its share of weak spots. For one, the visual device used to alert us of the monster’s presence (it’s a kind of “heat rising from tarmac” blur) didn’t work for me – it looks clunky and isn’t actually necessary, as the characters immediately wince and start coughing from the accompanying stench anyway. Also, I found that by the end of the film they actually showed the monster too much – he’s a pretty freaky fella, with his power drills and garden shears and all, and when you see him sprinting through the desert like a Tuscan Raider with the runs, it kind of robs him of his stature. I also felt that a few of the non-essential “creep around the motel” scenes were more padding than anything else – as this movie relies more on the revealing of alarming elements (like faceless people and surprise characters) than standard stalk-and-slash suspense, these scenes don’t really add much except running time.
But these are minor issues – on the whole the action is fun, the characters are interesting (details like one character’s obsession with finding the “perfect song” for every situation are unexpected gems), and the cast enjoyable (and, of course, attractive). And how many films since “Psycho III” can boast a scene where a character gets offed on the toilet? Like much about the film, it’s crass, and yet entirely appropriate in the grand scheme of things – a winning combination that elevates “Reeker” above its peers.