How do you stick a spoiler alert on a review of a horror anthology with a paper-thin framing plot, 7 separate, pulpy short films and a running gag in which two bored security officers discuss the finer details of Game of Thrones with diagrams? You don’t. I’ll do it anyway.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about the details of an anthology of short horror films and the plot of its wacky, threadbare frame narrative. I won’t ruin the twists of individual shorts, but I will spoil a touch of the meta. Scare Package isn’t a ruin-able movie the same way Scary Movie isn’t a ruin-able movie.
Maybe it seems like I’m being mean to Scare Package right out the gate. I promise I’m not: I’m not being any meaner to Scare Package than it is to itself. Just like the horror tropes it spoofs, I secretly liked it. It’s just also very dopey in a meta-clever kind of way. You’ll see what I mean.
There’s a moment that sticks out in the third act of Scare Package’s goofy framing plot, after everything goes wrong and the monsters emerge. Joe Bob Briggs – lowbrow hero of drive-in cinema and star of his very own Shudder series – walks in out of nowhere to save the day. He literally just wanders onscreen in his trademark cowboy hat like Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, drops a couple slick one-liners and leads our heroes out of danger. Our sort-of protagonist Rad Chad – of Rad Chad’s Video Store – climbs up Joe’s ass immediately, mooning over his hero while loudly explaining the horror tropes at play in the scene, and how they might survive them. Chad is a horror obsessive convinced that he’s trapped in a horror movie (he is), that every trope is real (they are), and that he knows exactly when everyone will die (he’s mostly right). In other words he’s a lot of guys I went to university with. He takes camp horror way, way too seriously. He sucks.
Joe Bob Briggs, who is perfect, turns to Rad Chad moments after meeting him and says in a perfect deadpan:
“You’re the personification of what the internet did to film criticism.”
Ouch. It’s okay, he dies shortly after – so does Chad. That’s Scare Package.
Scare Package is a Shudder original horror anthology by Aaron B. Koontz and a variety of other directors made up of six short genre films and a seventh framing story, the one starring Rad Chad, maniacal king of the small-town video store. I’m a fan of anthologies: they give individual directors an opportunity to strut their stuff, often highlight fresh talent, and don’t require the commitment of a full film – if they suck, they’re typically over quickly. Anthologies are also usually focused around a single theme or device: in this case that’s Chad’s video store and the many, many body-horror VHS tapes it rents out. And these stories are body horrors: despite the number of directors and conceits, the mood is splatstick throughout. Scare Package is an opportunity to showcase a whole bunch of miniature black-comedies and then tie them all together with a seventh story that pokes fun at all of them, even more than they’d already poked fun at themselves.
So far so good for any kid that grew up reading the backs of scary VHS tapes at the movie store and never renting any of them, like I did. Any town with a Blockbuster had a Rad Chad or two, after all.
It only really falls apart once it begins to lose focus and over-rely on the same tropes it’s allegedly spoofing, but we’ll get to that.
The first short is also the best, the most unexpected and the most inventive. It sets a pace the others struggle to follow. Emily Hagins’s exceptional Cold Open (of course) cold-opens Scare Package with the image of a lowly horror-stooge ensuring a crooked roadside sign points travelers toward the Abandoned Insane Asylum instead of their campsite. That’s his job, after all. His name is Michael Myers (but please, please call him Mike), and he’s a cold-opener: the horror movie character that fixes things in the backgrounds of scenes, cuts power to the house so that slumber-party teens are murdered in the right lighting, and sells you the haunted house in the first act. He’s a side-character of a side-character, more prop than man, and he yearns for a full arc of his own. He just wants a story. How and why he fails to get one is a great, unique subversion of horror cliches – it plays with the same kind of black comedy as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and I could watch it for an hour and a half. I wish Scare Package were just this awkward, nervous man and his career.
From there we get gross-out camper horror (One Time in the Woods), a cathartic takedown of the already-absurd Men’s Rights movement (M.I.S.T.E.R.), a literal title card pointing to the only film in Chad’s store labeled a ‘Post Modern Feminist Revenge Body Horror’ (Girls Night Out Of Body), a goofy one-room fourth-of-July teen slasher (The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV – The Final Kill) and finally the bizarre, clever So Much To Do. Many of the films star their own directors and writers, and were clearly made with love and care – dialogue is naturalistic and sarcastic, actors seem to be having a blast, and there’s a number of scenes where actors seem on the verge of breaking character to laugh at themselves. It’s a romp.
At least, it is until we get to the frame narrative.
Each of these stylish, distinct shorts is broken up by the drama unfolding at Chad’s Rad Video. Chad, who is a weird jerk, has an obsessive customer named Sam. Sam, like Chad, is a caricature of movie-store hipsterism. He also desperately wants to work for the store – so when Chad hires the quiet, stoic Hawn on the spot, Sam bullies him relentlessly in an attempt to open the job back up. Hijinks more or less ensue (there’s a fun joke about Macguffins), but there’s so little viewer investment – Sam is awful, Chad is awful, Hawn is barely there – that it’s hard to care about the events unfolding. The frame glues the shorts together, which is great because the shorts are great, but there’s no other reason to invest in such an unlikeable, flat pair of dudes and the victim of their bullying.
By the time Hawn reveals his awful secret and traps Chad with a bunch of stock horror characters – who he immediately gives labels like “The Jock” and “The Slut” – it’s difficult to care. Like Chad, we don’t know or care about any of these people, so how can we engage? Meanwhile, Sam just sort of disappears for a while. I hadn’t noticed he’d gone.
The final frame segment, Horror Hypothesis, is designed to add further comment to the cliches that each of the shorts explores. It’s a predictably meta twist that’s similar, again, to films like Tucker and Dale: horror tropes exist in the real world and can be exploited to predict the future. Chad predicting the future, because he knows everything about horror, is what brings us to the Joe Bob Briggs moment.
We already know Chad sucks. The problem is that by the time we meet Joe Bob Briggs, we’re just as exasperated as he is.
I get what the movie is doing here. Each of the shorts plays on a trope in a fun, gross, clever way. Chad is a cynic and tears those tropes apart, then uses them to be an asshole – so Joe Bob hates him and so does everyone else. Joe’s ‘internet criticism’ line breaks the fourth wall and reminds the viewer that it’s cool to just like stuff and not worry about tearing it to pieces. Don’t be a Chad: it’s okay to have goofy fun. That’s the Horror Hypothesis. I can dig it, and in a better frame narrative it would be a killer line.
The problem is that this just isn’t that movie.
While Horror Hypothesis has many of the best, grossest special effects in the movie, it’s impossible to relate to, even in an ironic, campy way. The characters aren’t given any real time to grow beyond their cookie-cutter ‘roles’, and while the horror laws-of-nature thing eventually gets a couple cool moments right at the end, it just isn’t enough to save the last half hour of the 2-hour movie. The whole thing just doesn’t get enough time to breathe.
So did I hate it? No, of course not.
Scare Package’s great saving grace is the inventiveness of its shorts and the absolutely obvious joy in every part of its creation. Sure the video store thing is tiring, but everyone is having so much fun. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of its frank, conversational dialogue was improvised. There are moments in The Night He Came Back where the lead actress is covered in such a cartoonish amount of fake blood that she almost seems on the verge of laughter. Cold Opener’s Mike Myers is openly hilarious, M.I.S.T.E.R. is as goofy as it is incisive, One Time In The Woods is so dumb and explicitly gory you can’t help but laugh at it. Girls Night Out Of Body (by director siblings Courtney and Hilary Andujar) is such a perfect take on the post-modern hipster slasher, right down to the color palette, that it feels like a trailer for a full film. I kind of wish it were. Even Rad Chad the video-store dad is entertaining in his goofy, grating, horror know-it-all way.
Where Scare Package fails as a serious horror, it totally succeeds as a celebration of campy, splatstick goofiness. Yes its frame is flat, the ending makes no sense and the pacing is busted – but who cares when there’s this much fake blood? Unlike Sam and Chad, Scare Package is unpretentious as hell. It’s all about the joy of scary stories and the elated cackle of a scene with way, way too much gore. Watch it with beer and popcorn in hand, and have some fun.
Shudder made themselves a true B-movie. Of course they did.
Scare Package is available on Shudder. Please don’t hate me Joe Bob Briggs.