The Curse of Downers Grove

2015 - 90 minutes

Rated: UR

Directed by: Derick Martini

Written by: Derick Martini, Bret Easton Ellis

Starring: Bella Heathcote, Lucas Till, Helen Slater, Penelope Mitchell, Mark L. Young, Zane Holtz, Martin Spanjers, Jeff Staron, Marcus Giamatti, Tom Arnold, Kevin Zegers

The scourge at that gives The Curse of Downers Gove its title is plainly and painfully spelled out in the film’s opening moments, although it winds up being largely immaterial. There’s a kernel of an intriguing supernatural horror idea presented, but it’s lost in a messy teen melodrama were several angsty themes are presented without being connected or scrutinized. Artificial dialogue, wooded performances, and nightmare imagery that inspires laughter instead of dread make for a tiresome experience.

Each year for the past several years, a senior at Downers Grove High School has died in the week leading up to graduation. Could it have to do with the fact that the school is built on sacred Native American land? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. Even the kids facing wrath of the curse treat it with indifference. When one of the doomed teens dies by falling from a water tower and splits his head open, a crowd of his peers look on blankly. It’s only with blunt dialogue spoken through trying-way-too-hard-too-look-grim faces where we’re told this is serious business.

The supernatural string is dropped early on when Chrissie (Bella Heathcote) – who’s provided us with the expositional voiceover to get us up to speed – attends a party and is assaulted by roided-up and coked-out football player Chuck (Kevin Zegers). After she nearly pokes Chuck’s eye out, the star quarterback and his goons stalk and attack Chrissie, her best friend, and her younger brother, while local authorities look the other way.

The lack of suspense is surprising given much of the off-putting and serious subject matter. It’s true that teens are often laissez faire and glum, but Chrissie and her cohorts are extremely underwhelmed by the threat posed by Chuck, not to mention the killer curse that’s hanging over their heads. They attend and throw parties, don’t want to bother Chrissie’s mom – who’s vacationing in Las Vegas – with these trivialities, and do nothing to combat the attacks until a finale that feels out of place. There’s never the feeling they’re trapped in a desperate situation; they’re just trapped in a movie that can’t build paranoia.

Director Derick Martini and his co-writer Brett Easton Ellis (who’s had a few of his novels turned into good movies, but no such luck with this screenplay or his script for The Canyons), seem convinced of The Curse of Downers Grove’s astute observations on the teenage condition. However, the affected voiceover, long talky scenes, and dream sequences with stylistic touches that bleed into Chrissie’s literal view of the real world – all meant to cement themes, only make them more scattershot. The supernatural curse and Chuck’s menace don’t dovetail.

The end of high school is a rite of passage, some grads moving on to bigger and better things and some who peaked as teens flat lining in their adult lives, so to speak. And here the adult examples aren’t stellar ones – from Chrissie’s absent drug-addled father, to the callous cops, and Chuck’s overbearing brute of a father (Tom Arnold). Any subtext or connective tissue regarding the curse of moving beyond high school is lost in the tedious mechanics of the film.

Favoring the repetitive, flat intimidation, The Curse of Downers Grove misses an opportunity to explore the promising end of innocence/creeping death idea with any real depth – a topic handled beautifully in It Follows, another low budget horror film from earlier this year. It Follows expertly creates a dreadful tone, while The Curse of Downers Grove is just a big bummer.

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