Generally speaking, the moment you get someone smoking pot in a horror movie, they end up dead. You also don’t get a frank look at mental illness without someone wearing someone else’s skin, or raving about their dead mother. Of course, there have been exceptions to the rules, and now there’s another one in the form of Richard Cranor’s Star Leaf. Combining pot use and a legitimate reason for it’s use doesn’t sound like much of a horror movie, but then again that would be selling the film short, wouldn’t it?
High school friends Tim Weaver (Tyler Trerise) and James Hunter (Julian Gavilanes) served together in Afghanistan as Marine snipers. While Tim has since left the service to pursue a more laid-back lifestyle, James remains in the field, but struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The two have gotten together with Tim’s girlfriend Martha (Shelby Truax) for a weekend of surfing. However, Tim has other plans and steers the trip towards meeting up with Seth “Guardrail” Slaughter (Russell Hodgkinson) in order to find a grove of marijuana that is purportedly out of this world. However, after failing to follow a strict set of rules, Tim ends up having the group targeted by a variety of dangerous characters.
With such a goofy premise, thankfully Star Leaf has the right amount of seriousness about it, but also doesn’t veer into over-the-top territory. Cranor doesn’t whack you over the head with the weed premise, derailing the entire film and making it into a crutch. There’s also a believable look at the effects of PTSD, which like other topics regarding mental illness, too often gets the “Hollywood” treatment one way or the other. And again, despite what you might think, Cranor throws in some interesting social commentary by juxtaposing James’ way of dealing with the effects of being on the battlefield with his meds Tim’s infatuation with weed. It’s just two forms of coping, and both have their positives and their negatives. Very interesting. As for the horror quotient, Star Leaf is more in line with the adventure-thriller fare. It’s more comedy and tension than gore, which is fine.
Another high spot for Star Leaf (sorry) is our protagonists. Not only do our trio handle themselves well in the acting department, but they also have great dynamic amongst themselves. Gavilanes does very well as James, portraying how PTSD affects individuals and those around them, including its moodiness. While Trerise falls into the horror tropes of the stoner and that guy who does the dumb stuff as Tim, it’s still an admirable effort. Truax makes her debut a good one as Martha, showing her obsession with Twilight, but not to the point that it’s annoying. The trio have some great exchanges and witty banter amongst themselves, and you definitely get a sense of comradery, which also makes the tense moments that much more enjoyable. Hodgkinson does the aging hippy thing very well as “Guardrail” Slaughter, and was a hoot to watch. Likewise, director Cranor’s turn as Ranger Dave was good, showing up at key points to move things along.
Star Leaf isn’t without flaws. The film’s indie origins arise in spots, particularly in the effects. The cheap CGI sticks out quite a bit when it’s used, even when the editing tries to cover it up. There are also some inconsistencies in some of the acting, and there are a few spots where the mics weren’t positioned correctly, resulting in muffled dialogue. But the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half, which is after the trio toke up. It begins the whole weird encounters with aliens, the Taliban, a dude covered in animal furs and so on. It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.
Still, the come down from Star Leaf is an enjoyable one. The film is a fun adventure, relying on developed characters and their interactions with some good humour thrown in. It’s not for every horror fan, but given the premise, that’s to be expected. It’s worth a look if you’re into stoner comedies with a bit more adventure flavour to them. Cranor has done an great job on this indie ditty, and it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with in the future.