Suburban America has always held a desperate, twisted sub-layer that belies the quiet manicured lawns that lie above its trimmed and toned surface. Suburbia has seen its share of horror films that promised to destroy the idyllic lifestyle so carefully crafted before it. Some films like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or BLUE VELVET terrorized and demonized the middle class. Other films like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS offer a damming, twisted and satirical look at the American dream, turned American nightmare.
The Lawson family exists as a microcosm of suburban ills. Dad (Daniel Stern) is trapped in a white collar hell, unable to confront his boss and address his malaise of unhappiness. Mom (Ileana Douglas)—a nurse—is the second half of this two-job-working family. Their son Reed (Jared Kusnitz) is trapped in a disaffected teenage wasteland and takes every availability to lash out—poor grades, implied drug use, a general seething disregard for his parents and authority figures, and Reed is apparently running a website where he posts photos and live feed of this sister Riley (Ashley Johnson) in various states of undress. In this carefully laid universe the most mundane of ritualistic familial activities—ordering a pizza for dinner—brings the most deadly consequences as Otis—the delivery man—returns the next morning to abduct Riley.
What follows is a film that is equal parts vicious satire and violent reality. Otis (Bostin Christopher) keeps Riley (whom he’s now dubbed Kim) chained in a disgusting dungeon where he engages her in a torturous role-playing game as she assumes the identity of a high school cheerleader with whom Otis intends on bedding after the prom. Meanwhile Otis conducts a similar game with Riley’s parents, phoning them and asking permission to date “Kim” before violating her. With the help of an insipid and inept FBI agent (Jere Burns) the Lawsons attempt to save their daughter from hands of a monstrous serial killer. But, when Riley escapes and returns home, The Lawsons decide to take the law into their own hands for a bloody climax that hammers home the films message of humor and horror.
OTIS works in an almost haphazard manner. The film opens with a brutal attack by the previous “Kim” in Otis’ life. The play between the two characters in this sequence seems custom designed to place OTIS squarely in the realm of the torture genre. Still, when we meet the Lawsons, what we get is a kind of dystopian version of the nuclear family. The satire comes into play when the FBI comes on the scene. The film works prior to Riley’s abduction and post her escape, when the horror humor really kicks into overdrive. The film’s strengths are squarely set on the family dynamic with Douglas as a driven matron determined to inflict as much damage on her daughter’s attacker as possible. Stern plays the fish-out-of-water element to the nth degree—it’s almost as if Stern’s CITY SLICKERS character Phil Berquist was on the Donner Party and being forced to apologize for eating Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby. Jared Kusnitz’s character of Reed is —obviously—the most gung ho about the family’s newly empowered sense of vigilantism. He can’t wait to start chopping off limbs and blasting holes in the walls. Reed is also a paradox as it’s hard to tell if his intentions are to avenge his sister (Who he readily exploits for his own gain) or just because he’s a disaffected youth and sees life as nothing more than a series of first-person shooters. Bostin Christopher’s Otis is a nightmare of a man. Horrifically intense with childlike malice that uneases throughout the film. Otis, Reilly and Otis’ brother Elmo (played by Kevin Pollak) are the only characters that play the plot straight. By grounding that portion of story completely in reality Director Tony Krantz (SUBLIME) and writers Erik Jendresen (SUBLIME) and Thomas Schnauz (REAPER) make the film work pretty well. However, the project does drag at times during Riley’s extended stay in Otis’ dungeon. Some of that drag comes in retrospect as the film truly kicks into pace when Riley escapes and her family decides to enact their revenge.
The defining label that could be applied to OTIS is “Horror-sitcom” as the film derives all of its satirical wit from the situational element of the story, and while that statement might be broadly true of every type of comedy, it behooves OTIS that the overall production has a twisted movie-of-the-week vibe to it, albeit without the movie-of-the-week acting prowess. In fact the strength of OTIS lies completely in the performance of its cast—delivering one of the strongest ensemble performances in a genre where the ensemble is generally populated with cardboard cutout characters destined to die at the hands of a madman, or madwoman or mad clan of suburbanites looking for a little old fashioned revenge.