Being released on Netflix whilst sharing a co-production credit with Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, Split) is not a bad way to get your directorial debut into the eyeballs of your fellow human beings. Throw in a score by the one and only RZA and Dallas Jackson’s Thriller looks like it has a lot going for it, but what’s under the hood?
In terms of plot, this is going to sound very familiar to a lot of people: When a prank to terrorise Chauncy Page (Jason Woods), a teen with mental health issues, results in the death of one of their number, a group of high school students pin the blame on the very boy they were terrorising. Four years later, Chauncy has been released from juvenile detention and the clique soon find their lives are in danger.
Yep, we’re in the well-trodden territory of the slasher movie; a land where good looking 20-something year old high school kids are chased around their palatial houses and escape in their even bigger sports cars. Jackson subverts what we know about these kinds of films by not only packing his film with a diverse cast, but by also setting the stalking and bloodletting against the streets of Compton.
In doing so, Jackson’s characters have more urgency than they would ordinarily in a genre that is literally bleeding homogenous white casts, where the token black character is given the option to delivers Aww, hell nos or die early by laying down their life for the white lead, or doing both. Admittedly, black horror is not a new thing, but it has been a rare thing in the annals of horror; hopefully, with the likes of Jordan Peele leading the way, we’ll see more of it. And to that end, Thriller should be commended. From RZA’s John Carpenter-infused score – which is the film’s biggest strength – to the numerous nods to the likes of Prom Night, Scream and even Carrie, Jackson clearly has a soft spot for not just slashers, but the whole horror genre.
None of which hides the fact that Thriller is not particularly thrilling. It’s a blunt attack on the senses, offering no real scares or even someone to cheer on. Like I Know What You Did Last Summer and its abysmal sequels, it’s hard to feel sorry for a bunch of teens finally getting their comeuppance after they tried to cover up the death of someone. They become doubly obnoxious when you consider the mental health of the person they figuratively throw under the bus. Take them down, I say.
Another of the film’s problems is how Jackson marries social commentary to his horror aesthetic. Whereas Us tackles issues of race and social class structure via a tale of home invasion, Thriller practically grinds to a halt as characters stop to discuss how life is for them. And I hate writing that, because I don’t want to appear dismissive of what Jackson is trying to say. The issues themselves are important, but every scene where it happens feels like it belongs to a completely different movie; like you were flicking between two channels.
As you may have already figured, Thriller is not a great film, but neither is it terrible. Jackson is trying to reinvent the slasher by playing out its tropes against a backdrop not usually reserved for this kind of tale. However, you soon wish he could have broken them down a bit more or at the very least bent them to his will. Taking this as a first pass, however, it’s going to be really interesting to see what Jackson comes up with next. Let’s just hope it isn’t a sequel to Thriller.