Friday, 12 December 2014

The Tripper

Director: David Arquette
Writer: David Arquette, Joe Harris
Producer: David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Evan Astrowsky, Neil Machlis, Navin Narang
Cast: Thomas Jane, Paul Reubens, David Arquette
Country: US
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK preview screening

This is the film where a psycho in a Ronald Reagan mask hacks up hippies in the woods - and to be honest, there’s not much more you need to know. It’s well-made, just the right length (which is rare these days) and enormous fun, a reminder that horror movies can be entertaining in an age when so many seem to dwell solely on sadism. This is a film about what someone does and why, not one that dwells on the clinical details of how he does it.

A prologue set in 1967 shows us a young boy whose mother is sick and whose father has the job of interceding between loggers and a group of literally tree-hugging hippies. When things get rough and the cops arrest his father, the boy - whom we first saw watching California Governor Reagan on TV - takes things into his own hands. It’s very good of the film to let us know right from the start who our masked maniac is, long before he even enters the film.

In the present day, a van with three hippie couples inside is heading for a free music festival in the middle of a forest. This sextet are utterly anachronistic and it’s only the presence of a mobile phone that clues us in to the fact that we’ve jumped forward four decades. Only Samantha (Jaime King: Sin City, The Spirit) isn’t stoned; she has stayed clean ever since she took acid and got beaten up for it by her boyfriend, a straight-laced jock named Jimmy (Balthazar Getty: Judge Dredd). Her current beau is Ivan (Lukas Haas: Long Time Dead) and the others in the van are Joey (Kevin Smith regular Jason ‘Jay’ Mewes, whose non-Smith genre credits include Scream 3, Feast and a vampire comedy called Netherbeast Incorporated), Jade (Paz de la Huerte), Jack (Stephen Heath) and Linda (Manchester-born Marsha Thomason who was also in Long Time Dead as well as The Haunted Mansion, Black Knight and Prime Suspect 5!). They are all given some degree of character but it probably says something that I had to plough through no fewer than 18 on-line reviews before I found one which actually identified all six hippies by name and the actors who played them.

Director/writer/producer David Arquette plays one of three rednecks who lob a bottle at Ivan’s head when the hippies stop to take a leak and who then take a beating from Samantha when the two groups meet up again at a gas station. But the real star of the film is Thomas Jane (who also gets an executive producer credit as the film was partially produced by his company Raw) as the local Sheriff, Buzz Hall. As well as his signature role in The Punisher, sci-fi fan Jane’s other genre work includes Simon Hunter’s Mutant Chronicles, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis, Deep Blue Sea, The Crow: City of Angels and a brace of Stephen King adaptation’s: Dreamcatcher and The Mist. Arquette’s brother Richmond plays a Deputy, as he subsequently did in the remake of Halloween.

Hall’s big problem is policing the ‘Peace and Love Music Festival’, being organised in the middle of the woods by slimeball promoter Frank Baker (Paul Reubens hamming it up deliciously; he was in the original film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - as was Jane - and also provided the voice of Lock, one of the three evil kids in The Nightmare Before Christmas). The local Mayor (Rick Overton: Eight Legged Freaks, The High Crusade, Groundhog Day) doesn’t approve of all the nudity, drugs and loud music but he does approve of the income and temporary jobs which the festival brings to his small town.

Disappearing hippies is not something that bothers Sheriff Hall - they wander off stoned and they’ll turn up when their heads clear - but real trouble arises when they start turning up dead. Initial suspicion points to a local crazy guy who lays animal traps in the woods but we all find out fairly soon that it’s a psycho with a Ronald Reagan mask and a double-headed axe. Considering that this is the central premise of the film and the focus of its poster/sleeve, there seems little point in hiding the actual killer from us for so long. The first few kills are shot in such a way as to give us no clear view of the guy, but we know he’s a loon in a suit and tie with a Reagan mask on his face. We also know who is behind the mask, unless we’ve come in late or we’re as out of it as the hippies on screen.

As the deaths mount, Hall tries to close down the festival, meeting the disapproval of not just hundreds of stoners but also Baker and the Mayor. Meanwhile Samantha - the only non-stoned attendee at the festival - has some idea of what is going on but is also worried that her violent ex-boyfriend Jimmy is around somewhere. And the three rednecks are togged up in camo gear, hunting hippies with paintball guns for fun.

In among all this, the actual deaths are good, old-fashioned, gory violence, not lingering and not brutally sadistic. Well, innocent people do get chopped up with an axe, but not in a way that gives pleasure to the person doing the chopper and certainly not in a way that satisfies the prurient members of the audience. You know, it’s very hard justifying a gory film as ‘fun’ while maintaining the moral high ground over unnecessarily sadistic gory films.

What makes this movie different from your bog-standard slasher is, of course, the political subtext. But what is bizarre is: there isn’t one. You can ‘read’ this from a right-wing perspective as the ersatz Reagan metes out well-deserved punishment to the pot-smoking, lazy peace-and-love-niks, cheering every axe-stroke. Or you can ‘read’ this from a left-wing perspective (what the inhabitants of the former colony call ‘liberal’) as the evil Reagan-figure strikes out with mindless violence against kids who just want to dance and make love, not war. In actual fact the film is equally critical of both viewpoints and Arquette has repeatedly emphasised that his intention was to make a fun horror movie of the sort that he likes to watch and that there is no political statement to be made here.

And yet it’s wrapped up in what seems to be a whole bunch of conflicting political statements. Arquette’s wife Courtney Cox (Friends, Scream 1-3) has a hilarious cameo near the end which is definitely a savage satirical attack on the peace and love crowd (the Inaccurate Movie Database credits Cox as ‘Cynthia’ but her unnamed character is listed as ‘dog hippie girl’ on screen). On the other hand, the end credits play under an unidentified diatribe of some radio or TV commentator haranguing Reagan, the Republicans and the entire US military-industrial complex. Maybe Arquette decided that if he threw enough differing political viewpoints into the fire they would cancel each other out. And it must be said that, from a commercial point of view, this is a canny move because it means that both right-wingers and liberals can watch the film: the one’s box office dollars are as good as the other’s.

The only truly sympathetic character, ironically, is Sheriff Buzz Hall, trying to keep order and stop the murders in the midst of all this. Thomas Jane gives a great performance and is definitely the film’s central character, if not its actual hero (there isn’t really one).

Hugely enjoyable as it is, there are two curious things about The Tripper that spoil the film slightly (well, three if you include the complete non-mystery about who is doing the killing and why). Although the central premise is a killer in a Reagan mask and we see a full-head Reagan mask hanging on a wall at one point and when the killer is finally stopped a full-head Reagan mask is removed from him (a scene which has no visual impact because we have never seen this character before, at least not as an adult) - nevertheless the killer is very clearly not wearing a Reagan mask. When we get to see him with any degree of clarity, it is very obvious that the actor is wearing prosthetic make-up. (The actor in question is actually make-up artist Chris Nelson although I’m not sure whether he had a hand in designing/creating the prosthetics or just wore them.) This is even more obvious when he speaks: this is make-up, not a rubber mask. It just destroys the illusion and seems completely pointless, especially as (and here comes my second point)...

The killer looks nothing like Ronald Reagan. Sorry, but it’s true. If we didn’t know in advance from the publicity that the guy is supposed to ‘be’ Ronnie Reagan, there would be no way to tell. The prosthetics and the hair dye just make him look like a red-faced old guy with dyed hair, not the 40th President of the United States. The face is not just wrong, it’s completely the wrong shape and frankly it looks no more like Reagan than your face or mine. Nor does it help that the actor - and hence the character - is muscular, unlike Reagan’s tall, skinny physique.

There’s the occasional shout of “Nancy!” (which we later discover is the name of a dog) but other than that, there is nothing Reagan-esque about this killer. All the possibilities to play with the concept, the potential one-liners and sight gags, have been ignored in favour of a single visual image - which, as stated above, only works because we’re told in advance who it is.

This is a shame although it doesn’t stop The Tripper from being a tremendously enjoyable, light-hearted horror movie with smart direction, a competent script and some super performances, especially from Jane and Reubens. It also contains, almost incidentally, a very unusual scene. After the festival is closed down, the out-of-their-gourds hippies head off into the woods to continue dancing anyway and the masked maniac wades into them, laying about him wildly with his axe. Most slasher films involve attacks on single people or sometimes couples. I’m no expert on the subgenre but it strikes me as very unusual to have a scene where the killer simply wades into a large group of victims, chopping away at them. Normally, any such group would either flee en masse, quickly reducing the potential victims to individuals, or even fight back. But the dancing hippies are so complete zonked that neither fight nor flight is an option. This is only a brief scene but, to be honest, it is more original and more interesting than giving the killer a Presidential mask.

Other cast members include Redmond Gleeson (Starflight One!), Richard Gross (Children of the Corn IV), Josh Hammond (sci-fi shark thriller Blue Demon, Timecop 2 - no, I didn’t know either... - Jeepers Creepers II and three David DeCoteau movies: The Brotherhood, Alien Arsenal and Ring of Darkness), Brad Hunt (Damned, The Plague), Waylon Payne (who played Jerry Lee Lewis in Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and Richard Reicheg (Leprechaun 3). Members of one of my favourite bands, Fishbone, perform on stage although curiously the song credits at the end of the film identify them as individual performers, not as ‘Fishbone’ - although Fishbone are credited with ‘additional music’. Something contractual going on there, methinks.

Evan Astrowsky (Cabin Fever, Minotaur) and Neil Machlis (The Ring Two, Bedazzled, Wolf) produced alongside Arquette and Cox; thirty years ago Machlis was production manager on The Stepford Wives and Empire of the Ants! Arquette’s co-writer Joe Harris worked on Darkness Falls (and the short that inspired it, Tooth Fairy). He also wrote and directed a short called Witchwise that looks intriguing and three episodes of an animated series about Vlad Tepes as a young man, called Bad Vlad!

Bobby Bukowski (Boogeyman) handled cinematography while editor Glenn Garland (Dracula Rising, Bats, Retroactive, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake and the Roger Corman Fantastic Four) stoked up the Avid. KNB handled the effects, which are largely limited to some gory axe wounds.

All credit to David Arquette for putting together a film that tries to do little but entertain and manages it admirably. But I’m still trying to work out whether wrapping it in apparently political ideas which aren’t actually there was a lucky mistake or a stroke of marketing genius.

(Incidentally the title not only refers to the tripping hippies but also riffs on Reagan’s nickname ‘the Gipper’. Not that I have ever heard anyone call him ‘the Gipper’ but this is what it says. All I ever heard people call him was ‘that crap old actor’ or ‘that dangerous, dribbling idiot who will probably kill us all’.)

MJS rating: B+

Review originally posted 15th February 2008

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