[30 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Whenever a movie has been sitting on the shelf, unreleased, for several years, one of two realities is usually the explanation why. First, the film is awful. It’s an affront to cinema. The studio that made it senses that it will be savaged by critics and ignored by most of the movie going populace, and so they lock it away in a vault hoping that (a) everyone involved will forget about it, (b) there’s no talent contract clause mandating an obligatory release and (c) that at some point, if A and B aren’t true, they can find a way to bring it out so that it will do the least amount of damage to their reputation and basic bottom line. Nine times out of ten this is usually the rationale. Then there are those film which fall into the category we like to call “Musical Distributors.” It’s a goofy game played by people with more ambition than cold hard cash, and the end result usually winds up looking a lot like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane.
Way back in 2006 (that’s more than seven years ago!) Jonathan Levine unveiled his deconstruction of the slasher film to festival audiences in Toronto, Stiges, and South by Southwest. Widely praised, it became the subject of a bidding war with Harvey Weinstein and his company winning out. After a horrible test screening which saw focus group audiences more or less reject the film, the mogul sold his interest to Senator Entertainment. They soon went out of business. The rights then lagged and Levine went off to direct such films as The Wackness, 50/50, and the ZomRomCom (zombie romantic comedy) Warm Bodies. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Harvey and his hefty checkbook came back, repurposed the picture, and is now preparing to dump it during the always suspect early Fall.
Even with a wealth of positive reviews behind it (it’s been out everywhere else in the world for years), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane could never fully live up to its legend. The hype, so thick and furious from those who saw its festival run (or who’ve since witnessed it on import DVD and Blu-ray) could only create a scenario by which the movie ultimately fails. Needless to say, Levine has done better (Bodies) and worse (sorry, but The Wackness was just…whack) with this intriguing attempted reinvention of a horror archetype falling somewhere in the middle, more good than bad. On the positive side, the director gets fine performances from his cast, including a having-since-gone-on-to-bigger-if-not-necessarily-better-things Amber Heard, and the storyline does keep us guessing. On the other hand, this is not the macabre revelation everyone makes it out to be. It’s no Cabin in the Woods, or Zombieland.
Instead, we have the story of Mandy Lane (Ms. Heard), a pretty girl who is more or less an outsider at her school. One night, she and her best friend Emmet (Michael Welch) attend a party where a classmate dies. Grief stricken, Mandy cuts off all ties to her past and starts hanging with the popular crowd. Months later, she is invited to another get together on a friend’s (Aaron Himelstein) father’s ranch. There, they run into a red herring hired hand (Anson Mount) and a bunch of their so-called drinking and drugging buddies. Without warning, the party guests start dying one by one and it appears that the killer has a particular affinity for Mandy. While shooting and stabbing the rest of the group, the unknown assailant leaves her more or less unharmed - that is, until his or her true intentions are discovered.
For the most part, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is no different than dozens of unseen stalker efforts, only this time, Levine (working from a script by newcomer Jacob Forman) adds his own unique perspective to the standard scary movie beats. We are supposed to suspect everyone, including our heroine, and the filmmaker does little to dissuade us in that regard. Better still, the level of obvious female aggrandizement (read: the sexualization of Mandy) makes for a real feeling of dread. We sense that our heroine might be one miscalculation away from being assaulted, or worse, and yet All the Boys Love Mandy Lane never sinks to that level of lewdness. Instead, Levine uses his directing skill to put our lead up on a precarious pedestal, and then does everything he can to knock her down.
In fact, one of the most intriguing things about this film is how the director applies objectification and all its non-PC proponents as a direct commentary on the genre he’s working within. We aren’t supposed to see Mandy as a victim. Instead, she’s an over-sex slice of seduction who should inspire such splatter and blood spilling. Levine turns the character into a cause, a catalyst, and in the end, a complaint, a spoiled part of an equally rotten high school culture that values the vain and empty and bullies the smart and the empathetic. When we learn what exactly is going on, when we see that someone is not who they claim to be and that circumstances were not really playing out in a similar fashion, we may feel a bit cheated, but that’s the beauty of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. We have certain expectations within the genre and Levine lets them slip by, with only an occasional comment.
And yet, the end result feels less like a revelation and more like a rewrite. We don’t get a sense of the movie resetting horror in the year 2013 (or 2006, for that fact). While Levine employs a look that recalls the exploitation efforts circa a ‘70s drive-in, he doesn’t have the same grasp on said material’s button pushing provocation. Instead, this is a movie that makes its case in small, not capital, letters, which highlights how hopelessly awful other fright flicks are by merely being above average. Unlike other movies lost in the realm of un-releasable realities, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane didn’t deserve its time in exile. It’s not some lost, unheralded classic, however. Instead, it’s a clever creepshow that might just overstay its snarky welcome a bit too much.