FENDER BENDER is a new slasher movie that I believe is the first original production by the great releasers-of-horror-classics-on-blu-ray Shout! Factory. The high concept is that there’s a killer who intentionally gets in small car collisions, exchanges contact information, and then comes after the person.
Hillary (Makenzie Vega, the little girl who Mystique turns into on the prison truck in X-MEN THE LAST STAND!) is a responsible teenager in New Mexico, an aspiring ballet dancer, under way too much pressure from her strict parents. Shortly after getting her driver’s license this shades-wearing cool guy (Bill Sage, AMERICAN PSYCHO) rear ends her, and her dad (Steven Michael Quezada, THE CONDEMNED 2) blames it on her and won’t let her go with them on a long-planned vacation to see a show in Vegas.
We know that this guy is a serial killer, but we watch helplessly as she writes down all her information, just as she was taught in driver’s ed. Then of course while she’s home alone she starts getting text messages from this guy, going from “this is uncomfortable but I guess he’s just trying to be polite” to “this is totally inappropriate.” Can she trust the apology cake she finds on her doorstep that might come from the guy in the accident, or from her dumb jock boyfriend Andy (Harrison Sim) who she just caught cheating and dumped?
I mean, of course not. We know that. But there’s no reason for her to. She doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie.
Through well executed thriller sequences it mines the sort of faceless-person-talking-to-you-while-you’re-alone fears of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and SCREAM. The creepiness of a big empty house, the worry that you heard something upstairs, that someone’s in the other room, that you didn’t leave that window open. And then what about when she discovers that someone erased the accident photos from her phone and took a picture of her while she was in the shower? That seems like a reasonable thing to freak out about.
She doesn’t spend the whole movie by herself. Her two best friends Rachel (Dre Davis, Pretty Little Liars) and Erik (Kelsey Leos Montoya, THE GUEST) come over to support her after the breakup and bad day. She’s not sure whether some of the weirdness can be attributed to her friends messing with her or to Andy, who shows up drunk thinking he can get with her. We know it’s the fucking driver, toying with and stalking her. And I guess she figures that out when she finally sees him at her house wearing what looks like a WWII gas mask crossed with S&M gear that then ends up looking like a bunny rabbit. But really he’s more like a cat because this is a cat and mouse game with a couple different mice running around the house.
One odd aspect of the movie I didn’t really get: she has a really close relationship with a car insurance representative who she talks to on the phone a few times. I don’t think they said they were old family friends or anything, they just act like that. The woman calls her “honey,” is excited to hear from her and knows all about her family and life goals and I guess this shows why she goes beyond the call of duty in figuring something out and calling to warn about it. This is not really a mistake, it just needs to be said that this company offers some very good customer service. Kudos to them.
In some ways FENDER BENDER is a throwback. Surprise surprise, it has an analog synth score, this one credited to someone called Nightrunner. Some of it is very effective, though honestly I think some of it is a throwback to the crappy type of keyboard score that shows its limitations by badly imitates an orchestra instead of taking advantage of the instrument’s unique electronic qualities. But it actually reminds me more of movies from the post-SCREAM era, with pretty young middle class people be stalked by theatrically masked slashers. It has some gore and what not but it’s more focused on tension and character than kills. I think Vega’s performance is a little stiffer than you’d get in those slick studio movies, but she’s a likable character that you have to be invested in to enjoy the movie.
But it still manages to be modern. Contemporary phone technology is important for setting up the scares. The heroine is Mexican-American and one of her best friends is gay, but it doesn’t feel the need to comment on either of these things or treat them as unusual. And I think in that subconscious way of so many horror movies it deals with fears that we didn’t have as much in the previous slasher eras.
So many of the classics have an element of guilt in them. The TEXAS CHAIN SAW kids were obnoxious townies sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. Jason infamously kills counselors who have sex or smoke pot. There’s definitely judgment involved, at least a subliminal sense that some of them are supposed to deserve it for their sins. Freddy, of course, was going after the kids of the parents who burned him alive. In the ’90s we had I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, where they really did kinda deserve it, because they ran over a guy and then covered it up. In SCREAM Sydney didn’t do anything, but Billy, in his misogyny, blamed her mom for an affair with his dad, and tried to shame Sydney for being her daughter. In JOY RIDE they brought the stalking on themselves with the humiliating prank they played on the wrong guy over the CB.
FENDER BENDER speaks to the times it was made because this crime is completely random. It’s literally an accident. But not figuratively, because he must’ve bumped her on purpose. She really did nothing, and she has a very strict father who’s way too hard on her, blames her for all kinds of shit. This relates to our fear of terrorist attacks or mass shooters, things that come out of nowhere when you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no self righteous morality involved, no you-shouldn’t-have-been-partying. So there’s less feeling bad about yourself, but more complete helplessness.
This is the return of writer-director Mark Pavia, who did the Stephen King adaptation THE NIGHT FLIER that I saw recently and enjoyed. I highly recommend this episode of the Shockwaves podcast where he tells the story of why it took him almost 20 years to get a second movie made.
[end of review]
unless you’re up for the SPOILER ENDING DISCUSSION FROM THIS POINT ON: As I’ve explained before, I have pretty conservative instincts about the slasher formula. I think that the cliche of one woman getting away at the end is a crucial part of the ritual. There are a couple movies (I won’t name them so as not to spoil them) that break the formula and leave me thinking that’s my only misgiving about them being modern classics of the genre. We usually need that feeling of victory for the grueling experience to feel worthwhile.
FENDER BENDER breaks the formula in a pretty fucked up way. But I think it works. At first it feels like a pretty big gut punch, as I’m sure it’s intended to. But the final scene showing the driver hanging out in the house enjoying his horrible success before moving on to his next victim is weird and gross enough to be really effective even as it frustrates me. Fuck you, The Driver. You’re gonna get yours eventually.