Mischief Night

| May 21, 2014

Scream was released nearly 20 years ago, but for better or worse it continues to have an influence on horror film in general and slashers in particular to this day. Mostly “worse,” unfortunately, as screenwriters try to out-clever Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s original meta-slasher in hopes of replicating even a fraction of that film’s popularity. Occasionally, this works out when a writer is more interested in continuing the commentary and satire of Scream in an interesting way. More often, though, some tiny echo of that film’s influence will find its way to a slasher movie that tries to do something a little different. Something different is often preferable to the same old same old, and can even be exciting when done correctly. Conversely, it can be exceptionally frustrating when done poorly. Mischief Night is a prime example of the latter.

Kaylie (Brooke Anne Smith) is filling in on babysitting duty for her best friend Daphne (Nikki Limo) the night before Halloween somewhere in a posh suburb conveniently located somewhere with very poor cell phone reception. Kaylie passes her time scaring off local teenagers who try to vandalize the house where she’s working, swearing at the baby in her care, and listening to the neighborhood weirdo (Malcolm McDowell) warn her not to open the door because of all the strange activities that happen in the neighborhood on “Mischief Night.” After an awkward interaction with her crush Graham (Matt Angel), Kaylie realizes that a masked figure is stalking the house. She behaves in typical “horror movie teen” fashion in response to this, stripping down to her underwear for a quick dip in the backyard pool, and after calling Daphne for help, Kaylie finds herself face-to-mask with the knife-wielding assailant (Marc Valera) who has chosen her for his victim.

As it happens, that’s how she likes it. Kaylie turns the tables on The Man (as the credits call him) by being even crazier than he is; also, he apparently can’t murder her because she’s a virgin. The two sit down to talk and discover they’re more alike than either of them could have guessed, and before long they’re bonding over their mutual feelings of being outsiders and disconnected from the world. They both have scars metaphorical and literal, and maybe they could be good for each other. The main problem standing in their way is the growing pile of bodies outside the house. Will Kaylie and The Man run away together, or will she have to explain those corpses to the family for whom she’s babysitting? When are those people coming home, anyway?

There are moments in Mischief Night when the film hits a tone that is entirely its own, and likely what writer/director Travis Baker was aiming for with the film as a whole. Sadly, those moments are fleeting. The concept of the “Final Girl” and the killer from a slasher film discovering that they are kindred spirits is interesting, but the characterizations here are so off-putting that the audience has nowhere to even start empathizing with them. Kaylie is painted as a spoiled, hateful teenager from her first lines, swearing at the baby in her charge and stealing pills out of the family’s medicine cabinet. Later in the film, when she opens up a bit about feeling like an unattractive outsider, it’s impossible to buy, because Kaylie is played by a beautiful young actress who has also appeared on an MTV sitcom. The combination of her unsympathetic behavior and miscasting makes Kaylie impossible for the audience to engage with. The Man is less verbose, but no less alienating. His big scene depends on his delivery of a lengthy monologue that reveals him to be completely insane, but his actions don’t bear it out. Beyond these two leads, the main action of the film hinges on the fact that Kaylie’s friends Daphne and Graham are playing a cruel, elaborate prank on her that is more like something out of a Lars von Trier movie than a teen-centric film of any kind.

It’s difficult to fault a film that is so clearly interested in doing something different than the legions of low-budget slashers that continue to clog the independent horror scene, but Mischief Night is too full of miscalculations and too reliant on the kind of coincidence and characterization on which it presumably wants to comment to qualify as a satire. Despite the film’s constantly zig-zagging tone, the finale is as completely predictable as it is nonsensical. With some more sympathetic characterization, this could have been something both different and commendable. As it stands, unfortunately, it’s just the former.

Lionsgate/After Dark Films released Mischief Night on DVD 20 May 2013. The DVD has no special features, but there are several minutes of Malcolm McDowell ad-libbing in the end credits and an alternate version of the film’s opening at the end of the credits, which is somewhat confusing.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom

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