June 25, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Tripper (2006)

by Nick Schager

The Tripper

[This week’s "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the history-rewriting presidential actioner Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.]

Political satire is nothing new to the horror genre, and on more than a few occasions—for example, William Lustig and Larry Cohen's Uncle Sam, or Joe Dante's Masters of Horror episode "Homecoming"—it's managed to find a suitable equilibrium with nasty carnage. Such a balance, alas, is nowhere to be found in The Tripper, the feature directorial debut of actor David Arquette, about a bunch of twentysomething friends who find themselves coping with all manner of clichéd slasher-madness circumstances, none more deadly than being pursued by an axe-wielding maniac in a Ronald Reagan mask. If you’re immediately wondering whether the Gipper—who's stalking victims at a drugged-out hippie-dippie Free Love music festival at Redwoods National Forest—eventually finds a way to carve "Just Say No" into his victims’ bodies, you're already one step ahead of this leaden effort. Arquette and co-screenwriter Joe Harris (Darkness Falls) intend for their material to be an everyone's-a-target lampoon in which no one is safe from being literally and figuratively picked apart. The problem here, however, is that by taking aim at all types across the political spectrum, the film plays less like a nihilistic equal-opportunity censure than a confused mess.

The Tripper

Given Arquette's own wacko on-screen and tabloid-celeb persona, that’s probably not a stunning outcome, yet it’s nonetheless dispiriting for a project that features enough notable talent—most of whom, presumably, are friends doing Arquette a favor (including his then-wife Courtney Cox, making a brief cameo)—to at least occasionally resemble a coherent piece of B-cinema trash. Unfortunately, the most fitting adjective to describe the plot itself would be “derivative,” as it details the been-here-before saga of some narcotized ciphers destined to be axe-fodder, save for nominal heroine Samantha (Jaime King), who still fears that her ex-boyfriend Jimmy (Balthazar Getty) is stalking her, and thus clings tightly to new beau Ivan (Lukas Haas). Their posse also includes Kevin Smith's frequent sidekick Jason Mewes and Boardwalk Empire's Paz de la Huerta, neither of whom provides their respective, trademark profanity and nudity in anything close to the quantity that might legitimize their participation in the first place. Rather, they’re just two of many characters who get high and occasionally blather on about George W. Bush in for-or-against soundbites that feign real interest in present-day (circa 2006) politics but really just pass the copious time before the bloodletting begins.

The Tripper

As a prologue elucidates, the Reagan-masked villain was turned psycho by a traumatic childhood encounter with anti-logging protestors in Redwoods forest that ended in chainsaw homicide, not to mention by watching hours of wartime atrocities on TV. That Arquette takes pleasure in both turning Reagan into a force of evil and in dramatizing the decimation of idiot hippies certainly allows him to play both sides of the fence. Yet it leaves the action feeling thematically adrift, a situation exacerbated by later, sketchy criticism of Reagan for freeing mental-hospital inmates back into society, as well as digs at greedy festival promoters—here embodied by Paul Reubens, whose main function is to repeatedly drop the F-bomb—and corrupt government officials. The one noble light around is sheriff Buzz (Thomas Jane), though the fact that he and Reubens' character are both saddled with bushy mustaches enhances the impression that Arquette doesn't really take any of this more seriously than as a game of splatter-happy dress-up. That's certainly true of his own tossed-off performance as one of the three hillbillies who terrorize Samantha and her friends—a trio so lame, they can barely even muster up requisite, stereotypical southern-friend nastiness.

The Tripper

Arquette's direction is passable except with regards to his corny visualizations of his characters' hallucinogenic trips—which, regrettably, occur quite often. As is par for such courses, no one opts to bolt the festival even after strung-up corpses begin appearing in the trees, and when Reagan finally stops lurking around the periphery and begins hacking up people left and right, the effect—via a scene somewhat amusingly scored to the punk-rock tirade "Reagan Youth"—is never close to frightening. Like far too many modern genre practitioners, Arquette fails to realize that, regardless of any other concerns, horror films' prime directive is to be scary, or at least attempt to be, and by not even making an effort in that department, he preemptively caps the potential effectiveness of The Tripper. Meanwhile, his inability to compensate for this misstep by lucidly analyzing the state of past or present American domestic and foreign policy, or even by giving his Reagan monster something truly funny to spout before slaughtering his victims, further downgrades this saga to a muddled trifle—albeit one, however, that’s still more politically cogent than Kevin Smith's similarly misshapen, but far more strident, Red State.

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Posted by ahillis at June 25, 2012 7:51 AM