VARSITY BLOOD (31 Days of Horror)

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Back in the 1980s, you couldn’t go more than a couple of months without a new slasher film popping up. Most of these films involved silent killers in easy-to-trademark masks stalking a bunch of horny teens. Eventually, it became more important to have a killer with personality and a catchy name, one who would hopefully possess the longevity to appear in numerous sequels. Of course, all of you knew this already. The slasher craze eventually ran out, after critics and respected artists had been calling horror films the bottom of the barrel and the box office receipts were beginning to lag. At the dawn of the 1990s, conservatism in America was on the wane and thus the cheap thrills of the slasher film didn’t seem as reactionary, powerful or enjoyable as they used to.

But for the young children of the 1980s, they saw the passing of the slasher as a sad moment in time. After all, they grew up on these films, staying up late to watch them on TV or renting them from the video store years after the fact and secreting them home. And yet, they were still too young to enjoy seeing Jason or Freddy on the big screen. They never got to enjoy the slasher in the same way as their older siblings had. And by “they,” I of course mean “me.”

Those pangs are still felt today as we continue to get low-budget slashers inspired by those films of the 1980s. Times have changed. UHF television has given way to Video On Demand. 16mm film has been replaced by digital video. But still these filmmakers try to recapture that spark contained in the original crop of slasher films.

VARSITY BLOOD does a decent job of recreating this lost but not forgotten sub-genre The film focuses on a high school football team and the cheerleading squad that seems attached to them both on and off the field. And yes, like most jocks and jock groupies, you can’t wait to see most of them die violently. That is, except for that one pure cheerleader who is of course the Final Girl that winds up unmasking the killer and fighting for her life.

Actually, I take that back. Jake Helgren’s film serves up a few female characters who, if not three-dimensional, are at least fleshed out enough to raise the stakes when that flesh is in danger of being pierced, punctured and mutilated. It’s also worth noting that there is a character that is saving herself. But it’s not the lead actress and she learns the hard way that some people aren’t worth the sacrifice, long before our killer shows up.

And what about that killer? Here, he’s the strong, silent type, posing as the team mascot after the actual mascot has had his head removed and thrown through a basketball hoop. There is a gimmick to the killer, just like in so many of those early 80s films. In this case, the killer is an archery expert. This means that running away won’t save you if this six-foot totem pole gets you in his sights. And of course everything seems to be linked to a deep, dark secret that happened to the pep squad a year prior.

There’s a lot of misdirection and clever touches in VARSITY BLOOD, enough to keep people guessing. The film is a homage to the original slasher flicks in many ways. The film not only brings back some of the fond memories of the slasher picture, but also some of the problems with those films as well. The plot holes are pretty vast, so if you’re the type of horror fan who likes saying “Why don’t they just…,” you’re in luck here. Maybe I turned away from the screen at just the wrong time, but it seems like everyone forgets that cell phones exist as soon as the killer starts picking them off.

And that’s another problem. Just like so many of those older films, VARSITY BLOOD makes us wait far too long to get to the good stuff. It opens big and then tiptoes around until the killer starts shooting teenagers. Once things start happening, they really move and it’s all great entertainment. But by that time, more than 50 minutes of the film’s 87 minute running time is up.

I always appreciate it when horror returns to its roots. VARSITY BLOOD recalls a simpler time in horror cinema, though Helgren is perhaps a bit too faithful to the formula. I would have liked to see more spins on horror tropes, like when it is one of the fit jocks and not some bubbleheaded coed that trips and falls while running away. Still, VARSITY BLOOD offers a few thrills and even a bit role for the Ubiquitous Debbie Rochon, who is welcome on this horror fan’s screen anytime.  Recommended.

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ABOUT 31 DAYS OF HORROR

For the month of October, I and a number of other people are taking part in the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Each day in October, we watch one horror film and share our opinions through social media. Because my reviews tend to run longer than what they’re supposed to, and because I never know when to stop myself, I’ll also be posting my reviews here as part of Moviocrity.com’s revitalization efforts.

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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