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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Curse of Downers Grove  (2015)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
1 Star
(Release Date: September 1, 2015) – There is a nugget of a provocative idea at the center of "The Curse of Downers Grove," but it could scarcely be more mishandled by writer-director Derick Martini (2009's "Lymelife") and co-writer Bret Easton Ellis (2013's "The Canyons"). Acclaimed author Ellis, who has seen superb adaptations made of his often exceptional literary works—among them, 1987's "Less Than Zero," 2000's "American Psycho," and 2009's "The Informers"—would have been wise to take his name off this ludicrously overwrought, supernaturally tinged teen melodrama. As it turns out, the lame script is one of the film's biggest hurdles to overcome, an amateur-hour hodgepodge of painfully extraneous voiceover narration and hacky, underdeveloped plot points that add up in the end to one big poof of dust.

For the past eight years, a high-school senior in the Illinois town of Downers Grove has tragically died on the eve of graduation. Is it a coincidental case of really bad luck? Or, could it be the result of a centuries-old curse perpetrated by the angry spirits of Native Americans whose land was taken from them in 1832? In voiceover, Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) ponders with on-the-nose stiltedness, "I can't help wondering if the curse could be real." Uh-huh. When their mom (Helen Slater) heads to Las Vegas with her new boyfriend, Chrissie and 15-year-old brother Dave (Martin Spanjers) are left behind. With graduation nearing, Chrissie is determined to be careful and on her best behavior—an endeavor easier said than done when she is dragged along to a party by best friend Tracy (Penelope Mitchell) and fends off an attempted rape by poking varsity football jock Chuck's (Kevin Zegers) eye out. Chuck opts to not go to the hospital and instead starts stalking Chrissie and her friends. With the crooked cops no help to her, she fears she may be this year's unlucky graduation victim.

Based on Michael Hornburg's 2001 novel "Downers Grove," "The Curse of Downers Grove" straddles the line between horror film, "...from Hell" thriller, and coming-of-age soap opera. It is not shy about violence—some late scenes where Chrissie has no choice but to take matters into her own hands are positively brutal—but it is shy about having any sense. Bella Heathcote (2015's "The Rewrite") has a unique, unconventional quality about her, but she is done no favors by an inept screenplay that forces her to endlessly babble on and wax (un)philosophical in recurring narration that blatantly tells rather than shows. As Chuck, 30-year-old Kevin Zegers (2013's "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones") has passed the point where he can believably play teenagers; his villainous hothead (who comes equipped with mindless, interchangeable teammate cronies) is despicable, to be sure, but also a slimly drawn caricature with an even more one-note abusive father (Tom Arnold). Director Derick Martini seems to be so pleased with himself that he even goes so far as to end the film on a sappy "happier times" montage, then follows the end credits up with a ridiculously prolonged repeat of a different, more threatening montage for no other reason than to flaunt what he incorrectly perceives to be editorial stylishness. To reach the end of "The Curse of Downers Grove" is to finally find out if the so-called graduation curse is valid or not. Unfortunately, by this point, many viewers will have long stopped caring.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"The Curse of Downers Grove" was digitally lensed by cinematographer Frank Godwin with the Arri Alexa, and then seemingly filtered in post-production to give the image a dark, almost desaturated look. Because of the overall dim appearance, fine detail is lost on occasion in its fairly accurate but unimpressive 1080p transfer. Black levels are sharp if clearly artificially produced, but the overall picture has a softness to its photography that the high-definition format does its best to overcome. There is little that is inherently "wrong" with this transfer (although hints of moire do pop up on fences and bleechers), but the manner in which it was shot and tweaked simply doesn't lend itself to an aesthetic showstopper. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is nothing special, either, but more noticeably problematic. Sound effects are subdued, the music score sounds thin and lacks the full-bodied punch one expects from new soundtracks, and dialogue is clear but mostly reserved to the front speakers. Ambience and use of surrounds additionally lack any verve. A middling aural presentation all around.

Blu-ray Features
  • "Behind the Scenes of The Curse of Downers Grove" Featurette (4:34, HD)
Bottom Line
Without looking at the credits, one would never be able to guess that "The Curse of Downers Grove" was written and directed by anyone other than first-time novices (that Bret Easton Ellis co-wrote the script is, frankly, shocking). The film doesn't hold back its third-act bloodshed, but the dim-bulb narrative the characters have found themselves in is worthy of virtually nonstop eyerolls from the audience. Simply put, director Derick Martini has taken an enthralling premise and botched the results. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray is a relatively barebones affair with no substantial special features or insight into the process of making the picture or what the filmmakers were striving to achieve. If interested, give it a rental. Otherwise, feel free to pass "The Curse of Downers Grove" by.

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© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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