★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Red Letter Day’s uniquely Canadian spin on “mob rules” horror adds a helping of humor to the neighbor vs. neighbor proceedings, with some unique improvised kills and loads of bloodshed.
Directed by Cameron Macgowan
Writer/director Cameron Macgowan’s Red Letter Day is a horror film with dark comic elements that plays like a gruesome, modern-day take on some entries in Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone television series, most notably the episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Something that gives this film a unique approach to this type of “mob rules” scare fare is its Canadian setting, as that countries’ citizens are considered, generally, to be highly polite people. The result is an entertaining, blood-soaked, often funny feature focused more on familial bonds and survival than on social commentary.
Melanie Edwards (Van de Schoot) is a recently divorced mother who has just moved into upscale housing area Aspen Ridge with her teenagers, goth-ish daughter Madison (Hailey Foss) and wisecracking son Timothy (Kaeleb Zain Gartner). After a blood-spattered cold open, the Edwards receive one each of the titular missives, which inform them that they must kill a particular individual in their neighborhood before that person kills them. At first dismissing the letters as a prank, the family soon learns that some of their neighbors are taking the communications quite seriously.
This being a horror movie, the family members naturally separate themselves from each other and encounter various forms of danger. Melanie is initially established as a tough, no-nonsense, but fair-minded individual, so that character’s arc from take-no-guff mom to protective butt-kicker isn’t much of a stretch, but de Schoot inhabits Melanie with gusto as the character faces off against a friend’s suspicious husband and then goes on a quest to find her endangered kids.
Macgowan deftly examines the question of how much — or perhaps, how little — reason comes into play in a high-stress situation such as the one depicted in Red Letter Day; for example, how quick to violence are some people who normally seem rational and level headed, and how eager are others to alleviate stress in a violent, even deadly manner? He does so in a serious manner, but with sly comic touches.
Whereas films such as the Japanese classic Battle Royale place their characters in a mandatory “kill to survive” situation from a higher authority, Red Letter Day’s instigators are not authority figures. I’ll leave it at that so as to avoid spoilers, but the latter film puts its protagonists and other characters in a situation in which they all have the choice whether to act on the violent instructions. This makes the film more of a psychological study of a few central characters rather than a larger sociological look at life in 2019, with its highly divisive “us vs. them” turbulence in not only the United States and the United Kingdom but around the world. Some people wishing for a focus on political issues may be disappointed with Red Letter Day’s approach, but I applaud it for its different and more personal take. (Comparisons to The Purge franchise are inevitable; however, readers won’t find any in this review because I have deliberately avoided the films in that series. Home invasion and random-violence-toward-strangers horror movies just aren’t normally the type of horror films to which i gravitate.)
The red in the title doesn’t just refer to the color of the envelopes in the film. Plenty of blood and gore is on display, including a facial gore gag that is both incredibly disturbing and somewhat funny at the same time. This reflects something that Macgowan does quite well; that is, balancing horror with humor.
Red Letter Day works on multiple levels. Viewers who are justifiably disappointed that not enough people took Rod Serling’s cautionary fables of The Twilight Zone to heart in its day and throughout its legendary run on television reruns and on home video formats will find plenty to chew on, and those who are simply looking for a solid horror outing with comic elements should find much to enjoy.
Red Letter Day will open in select cinemas on November 1st and land on Blu-Ray and VOD on November 5th from Epic Pictures and DREAD.