On Sunday, Netflix is releasing another movie from Blumhouse Productions, a studio known for horror flicks. It’s the second such surprise release in as many weeks, coming on the heels of Mercy Black, an entertaining enough riff on the horrors of the Slenderman. The new movie, Thriller, leans less on the supernatural aspects of horror in favor of being more of a spooky thriller, as the name might imply.
As with Mercy Black before it, Thriller is a solid little scary movie that doesn’t aspire to be high cinema. And yet, there’s a distinct, admirable uniqueness to Thriller, even if the film’s aspirations are held back by the tropes and cliches of a well-worn genre.
Netflix describes Thriller as “an urban slasher,” though its main characters describe their inner-city neighborhood as “the hood.” It’s a worthwhile twist on a genre where the idea of the black guy dying first is an embarrassing hallmark. The cast of Thriller are all people of color who are getting ready for homecoming at their high school — only a face from the past threatens to crash the party.
Four years prior, the teens all decided to pull a mean prank on one of their classmates, Chauncey. After luring the slow but kind-hearted kid into an old house, they jump out and scare him, and in Chauncey’s panic, he accidentally pushes one of his bullies over a railing where she falls to her death. Clearly, it was an accident, but rather than reveal the role they played, the pranksters make Chauncey out to be a killer, and he’s sent to juvie for four years. Upon his release, a hoodied figure starts lurking in the neighborhood, and the teens worry that Chauncey might be out for deadly revenge.
It’s all very Prom Night or I Know What You Did Last Summer, only instead of middle or upper-class white kids fretting about how their social lives are about to be upset by a killer from their sordid past, it’s a collection of Compton youth who already know how dangerous the streets can be. It’s a laudable twist on the classic formula, with added authenticity since RZA executive produced Thriller and stars as a hard-ass, well-intentioned high school principal.
The cast and setting give Thriller a fresh feeling, compared to most slasher movies. The only thing is, pretty much everything else about Thriller is pretty generic slasher movie fare. Heck, even the title is generic. The plot unfolds in patently familiar beats, beginning with the inciting origin story before gradually introducing all the characters, giving them just enough time in the spotlight to showcase enough personality that we can almost tell them apart once they’re killed off. Those kills are predictable and fairly bloodless, with one exception. At the end, there’s a twist, which savvy viewers might see coming because they’ve, you know, seen a slasher movie before.
Sure, the characters are refreshingly different from most victims in slasher movies, but they can only be so unique. There’s an artifice to the genre that Thriller can’t quite escape. When the teens are talking about the violence they face on the streets, it can’t help but feel just a little hollow because they’re doing so within the confines of a horror movie. They’re stock characters in a stock plot, just with some reflavoring.
Perhaps that’s okay, though. If Thriller isn’t a groundbreaking classic of the genre because it sticks to familiar beats and dropped on Netflix with little fanfare on the same Sunday that Game of Thrones' final season premieres, what’s the harm? There’s something comforting about watching a good old fashioned slasher movie, and Thriller takes enough steps to give the genre some much-needed updates without escaping tradition.
There’s something important about people of all sorts being able to see themselves in a movie, even if they’re seeing the on-screen versions of themselves get brutally murdered. If Thriller merely makes the wheel more diverse without reinventing it, that's enough to matter. Having the right to be pedestrian is kind of a right of passage toward diverse normalization.