While I was out visiting my sister in LA, I was mainly trying to just relax in the wonderful southern California sun, but I didn get one thing IHC-related checked off my list— watching Kevin Smith’s Red State. While he’s promoting the movie around the US in theaters, the film is also currently available for rent on iTunes, so before my journey began, I loaded Red State on ye olde iPad and wiled away a couple hours of uncomfortable flying over the country by watching Kevin Smith’s first shot at a horror movie.
Red State so far has gotten mixed reviews, but after watching it, I’m surprised that this is his first horror movie. There are two main elements to any modern horror movie— stupid teenagers and an original, seriously fucked up antagonist— and those just happen to be the two things Kevin Smith does best. Memorable stupid teenage characters and being fucked up. So while other forays out of his comfort zone have been absolutely unwatchable (looking’ at you Cop Out), Kevin Smith’s first horror film is actually really fucking good. It’s still Kevin Smith, meaning it’s pretty dialogue heavy at times, so it’s not for everyone, but after reading some bad reviews of the film, I wasn’t expecting much, but Red State is probably now one of my favorite Kevin Smith movies.
So I called Red State a horror movie, and Kevin Smith has called it “his horror movie”, but it’s not really a normal horror movie. In its look and feel and pacing and suspense, it’s all horror, but it’s not a monster movie (not in the traditional sense) and it’s not a slasher flick. In Red State, the horrors are in the form of a psychopathic Fred Phelps-esque cult leader named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), head of the Five Points Church. He’s not supposed to be Fred Phelps, as Fred Phelps does exist in the Red State universe, but he uses similar tactics of protesting funerals, only Cooper isn’t looking for litigation, he’s looking for sinners to execute.
The movie kicks off with three high schoolers, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) go cruising for sex on a Craigslist-like site and they end up hooking up with an older woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo), who unbeknownst to them, is the wife of Five Points leader Abin Cooper. En route to their party, they’re so busy trying to figure out the logistics of their foursome that they accidentally sideswipe the car of the local sheriff, who’s busy getting a gay BJ. Travis, Jared and Billy Ray stop, but then thinking the car is empty, they high tail it out of there… and besides, they’ve got some older lady pussy to pound. When they get to Sarah’s trailer, she loads them up with beer, and before any shenanigans can happen, the boys pass out, only to wake up in cages at the Five Points Church.
Jared wakes up in his cage and finds himself next to a giant cross at the church’s alter, and tied to the cross with plastic packing wrap is a local gay man. Abin gives a frightening Biblical speech condemning homosexuality, two men from the church wrap the guy’s head in plastic wrap and put a bullet in his brain. They cut the body down from the cross and drop it through a trap door into a cellar where the other two teenagers, Travis and Billy Ray are being held.
Moving forward, a local sheriff’s deputy shows up at the church compound for something— I don’t remember— and notices the teenager’s station wagon parked on the premises, with clearly brand new damage along the right side of the car and tells Abin about the accident just down the road. Abin says the car belongs to one of his daughters, gives a wink and some nonsense about “woman drivers” just as shots can be heard from inside the church. The deputy gets on his radio, calls for backup and is shot in the chest with a shotgun. Now with a dead cop on their hands, the ATF are called out to raid the compound, led by Agent Keenan (John Goodman).
Even though I talked shit about Cop Out earlier, Kevin Smith only directed that movie to get some experience directing action sequences. And while the action sequences in Cop Out were pretty standard, it’s obvious that he’s absorbed quite a lot about directing action since then, because once the raid on the compound gets going, it suddenly doesn’t feel like the Kevin Smith of old, where he was content with just a single camera on a character or two. He really goes all out and he does a pretty damn good job. But even as bullets are flying and skulls are being blown to smithereens, he still manages to fit in some great dialogue and WTF moments that take you by surprise— again, the hallmark of a really well done horror movie. Some are bound to be offended— and Westboro Baptist Church is certainly offended— by the strongly anti-religious tone of the movie, but Smith manages to do it in a way that makes sense to the plot of the movie without ever coming off as overly preachy or heavy handed. I mean it definitely is heavy handed in its message, but not much more so than say, Dogma.
At times, the acting in Red State has the feel of earlier Kevin Smith films. I don’t know what you might call it— it sort of feels a bit amateurish, even for the seasoned actors, but it’s also got a great indie film sense of realness and urgency at the same time. Overall, the casting and acting were spot on, with the three teenagers really feeling like stupid, awkward teenagers, with John Goodman bringing serious authority to the role of Agent Keenan and Michael Parks was unbelievably perfect and spine-chillingly frightening in the role of Abin Cooper.
Red State isn’t perfect, though it is definitely worth renting, buying or seeing in the theater. Again, it’s not for everyone, but it’s a truly unique movie in a sea of homogeny and a testament to the ability of filmmakers to use the internet to make well done, uncompromising indie films and actually make money doing so. There are plenty of moments in Red State, where even indie-friendly production companies such as Miramax or Weinstein would probably have insisted on removing some dialogue to appeal to a wider audience, to tone down the anti-religious rhetoric or the violence, but Kevin Smith did it his way, and I applaud him for his vision. He managed to make his first horror movie a better horror movie than 99% of Hollywood horror flicks out there, and he did it by being himself and doing what he does best.