Stars: Daniel Wilkinson, Brian Raetz, Lindsey Nicole, Ryan Moore, Celina Beach,Nicole Dambro, Keith Webb, Sheila Leason, Vibhu Raghave, Rachel Carter, Andrew Dawe-Collins | Written by Glenn Douglas Packard, Darryl F. Gariglio | Directed by Glenn Douglas Packard
I love slasher films. I always have. In fact, I would say that it is the slasher, more than almost any other subgenre, that has defined me as a horror fan. As a fan, my reverence for these oft-maligned films knows no bounds and I find great comfort in revisiting them over and over.
However, as a film-maker, the prospect of actually making a slasher film terrifies me. As much as I want to believe that there is new ground just waiting to be broken, I struggle to see what can still be done with the slasher film. I approach every new entry with the hope that I will find something new, something that carves out its own niche in a cluttered subgenre, that relies repeatedly on the same worn (albeit loved) tropes.
Enter Pitchfork, the debut film from award-winning choreographer-turned-director, Glenn Douglas Packard. How does it stack up?
Pitchfork is the story of Hunter, a New York-based performer who returns to the sleepy Michigan town where he grew up to visit the family farm for the first time since coming out as gay. He’s not looking forward to it. He’s also not coming alone. Oh no. He has a veritable mob of friends with him as back-up. You know the types. The “slutty” one. The “geeky” one who harbours a long-burning crush on the girl in the relationship with the total arsehole, the best friend… They’re all here, supporting Hunter and looking to party.
However, their fun weekend on the farm is swiftly ruined by the arrival of an uninvited guest in the shape of Pitchfork, a topless, fork-handed killer in an animal mask, who immediately sets off on an enormous killing spree, chalking up an impressive kill tally as he jabs his way through the group.
Pitchfork is a curious film. Tonally, it’s all over the place, particularly in the first act where the film struggles to figure out exactly what it wants to be. There are misguided attempts at humour that pull the viewer out from whatever tension has been built and, more curiously, a full choreographed dance routine. This makes sense given Packard’s previous work but is a total misfire in the context of this film. There is also a peculiar decision to shift into the first person for no reason, an approach which is discarded almost as soon as it comes. Think Doom but with a torch instead of a gun.
I think a lot of the blame for this wobbly tone falls at the feet of Packard himself. Remember, this is his first film and he is clearly experimenting in camera. I just wish that a few more of the experiments were consigned to the bin in the edit.
The script is almost uniformly bad, relying too heavily on the clichés that have plagued slasher films in recent years. It feels like a script written with a loose knowledge of what a slasher film should be, but by people who have never seen one. It seems completely terrified to step out with the cliché and to attempt anything new. The cast, for the most part aren’t great, which isn’t surprising given the relative inexperience of several but they really do their best with what they have (which is all I want in a slasher film, in fairness, as these are disposable characters).
The film’s greatest strength lies in the character of Pitchfork himself. Our killer here is a feral, animalistic cross between the pint-sized killer of Jonas Govaerts’ Cub and Behind the Mask’s Leslie Vernon, with a passing nod to Freddy Krueger. He gets a lot of screen-time here, which is just as well as Pitchfork is easily the most interesting thing about the film. Actor Daniel Wilkinson throws himself into the role wholeheartedly, bringing to life a character who is a true product of his environment and even managing to inject some empathy into him in the process.
Pitchfork finally finds its feet and its darkness in the third act, when we are introduced to Ma and Pa and we realise that Pitchfork is easily the least fucked-up member of his family. It all gets a bit torture-y in the last moments, with Rachel Carter easily stealing the show as Ma, as we explore the family dynamic responsible for the creation of this killer. Sadly, it was all a case of too little, too late for me.
Inexperienced mistakes and bad writing aside, Pitchfork’s biggest sin is that it too quickly discards the reason for bringing these people together in the first place. There is no reconciliation or acceptance to be found between Hunter and his father, even in their final moments together. Much is made of the small-town mentality of Hunter’s family and his home town but this is never explored and sadly, the whole issue itself feels completely lost and glossed over, which is a shame.
So, does Pitchfork bring anything new to the subgenre? Did I find what I was looking for? Not this time. But almost. There is a seed of something interesting here, without doubt, but the whole experience is ruined by flawed execution. There’s a playfulness which is admirable too but ultimately, I don’t imagine we will see too many more outings for our prong-handed pal, which is a shame as Pitchfork himself deserves better than he receives here.
Pitchfork hits US cinemas on January 6 (L.A, Arena Cinelounge) before being available on demand on January 13th.