Photo: Ian Watson
Before We Vanish by Daniel Gorman Film

Riot Girls | Jovanka Vuckovic & Villians | Dan Berk & Robert Olsen

September 26, 2019

Lifting a page from a varied litany of genre precedents, Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls envisions a post-apocalyptic world — brought about via virus, not zombies or nuclear war — where adults have died off and only kids remain. In a choice that’s meant to mirror various high school clique power struggles, a small town has been divided into two halves, one run by some cool, punk-rock kids and the other by a bunch of fascist douchebag frat boys collectively known as the Titans. When Nat’s (Madison Iseman) brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) gets kidnapped by the jock jam bunch, it’s up to her and her BFF Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) to get him back.

Exhibiting a real scrappy energy — a kind of lets-put-on-a-show vibe — Riot Girls is a low-budget goof that manages to be fun despite some fairly significant shortcomings. The the admittedly shoddy special effects are appealingly lo-fi, and the set design has a strong handmade feel. The cast is mostly amateurish, but they give it their all, leaning into their various high school archetypes with gusto. While the performers are all basically playing dress up, the film is at least professionally made — which shouldn’t be considered a backhanded compliment. As the unwatchable genre offerings of Amazon and Netflix might attest to, dirt-heap horror movies are a dime a dozen, and baseline professional competency is rarer than it might seem in this age of the gaping content maw. Thankfully, Vuckovic and writer Katherine Collins steer clear of the smug, self-aware ironic detachment of dumb-as-shit pastiches like Kung Fury and Wolf Cop. Throw in a supportive queer romance, a multi-cultural cast, and a bunch of behind-the-scenes roles for women and you’ve got a pretty good time on your hands. Riot Girls isn’t a great film, but some kid is going to stumble across it at just the right, young, impressionable age and they are going to have a blast.

If Riot Girls represents an outsized ambition relative to its meager production values, Villains is something like the polar opposite, a small, insular film that gets a lot of mileage out of its talented cast but has no ambitions beyond that. Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are an adorable couple of dumb, petty crooks — the film opens with them robbing a gas station and then running out of gas as they make their getaway. They’re like a stoner Bonnie & Clyde, breaking into a secluded suburban home and getting high while they look for stuff to steal. Of course, things get more complicated when they discover a little girl chained up in the basement and the residents unexpectedly return home. As the homeowners, Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick are clearly having a blast playing a couple of psychos who will do anything to keep Mickey and Jules from getting out alive.

It’s a fantastic set up, but this hook is about all the film has going for it apart from the talented ensemble cast. Villains is a modest movie, the equivalent of a bottle episode of TV, as virtually the entire thing takes place inside this house. Writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen keep the pace lively enough and manage a couple of solid set pieces, including a real showstopper as a bound Jules and Mickey have to figure out how to get a tongue piercing out of Jules’ mouth without using their hands. But everything plays out almost exactly the way one expects it to, with few surprises. Berk and Olsen don’t generate much suspense from their scenario, and instead lean more on goofball charm, which Skarsgard and Monroe both have in spades. Villains frequently feels like a short film that got padded out to feature length, when it might have worked better as one part of an omnibus film (or even an episode of TV). In the end, it’s not much more than a mildly amusing lark.

Published as part of September 2019’s Before We Vanish.