The make or break moment for me in any horror movie is that first time characters are confronted with the horror, be it supernatural or simple slaughter. And that’s pretty much where “Red Pill” goes wrong.
A well-cast old-leftists-go-Red-Stating thriller in the “Get Out/Red State/The Last Supper” vein, it lands its satiric political punches (sort of) but botches the “Cabin in the Woods” basics.
Veteran stage and screen (“Madame Secretary,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) actress Tonya Pinkins packs good players into a GMC Yukon for a jaunt South, to rural Virginia for a weekend of voter canvassing. Our first-time feature director and star takes her ensemble to “the slave breeding capital of the world” and gives them lots of politically-sharp banter for the drive down.
Cracks about “Flat Earthers” and “hillbillies” and “genocide” and “Ms.-ogyny” and how “people are loyal to groups built on lies” pepper the conversation.
“Could you get inside of their heads and destroy their believes with fact?”
But once they arrive at their small town off-brand AirBnB, the horror begins and the movie sputters like a deflating balloon.
It’s Halloween, just before the election, and Cass (Pinkins), Anglo-African husband Bobby (Adesola A. Osakalumi), Lily (Kathryn Erbe) and Jewish joker Nick (Jake O’Flaherty) Latin immigrant Rocky (Rubén Blades) and Croatian Serb Emelia (Luba Mason) sing the old Gospel protest song, “Marching Up to Freedom Land,” mutter about the “white supremacy” that the past four years has brought out from under a rock and even stop to pull down a one of those racist road signs yokels have been putting up all over the rural South since Trump gave them permission.
That’s their first “red flag.” But the viewer’s seen others — this pale redhead (Catherine Curtin) making bread with drops of blood in it, the bizarre symbol on her top. Even seeing local white women wearing that symbol in matching black cult suits as they roll into town doesn’t dissuade our travelers.
The bizarre decor of their old rental house, the Melania in a Bikini aiming a gun with a laser-pointer light embedded in it doesn’t chase them away. It won’t be too long before their endless debate about the legacy of slavery and ingrained racist beliefs and systems is interrupted by the inevitable “Did you hear that?”
That make or break moment comes shortly thereafter, and the cast and director Pinkin utterly blow it.
Something unimaginably horrific has transpired before their eyes. They have an instant to process it, what probably came before it and their dire situation. And nobody reacts in a way normal humans might, which is to freak the-f out. Numbed “shock” should come later. For the scene to work, we have to be as traumatized as the victims. They aren’t, so we aren’t.
Moments like this call for close-ups and quick edits, stunned, screaming faces intercut with violence, a “jumpy” camera to convey the mania of the moment.
“Red Pill” gives us bupkiss. And while there are later moments that get closer to the mark, most of the “pick-them-off, one-by-one” tropes come off flat.
The eye-rolling over-the-top finale doesn’t atone for these shortcomings either.
“Red Pill” — it cleverly takes its title from “The Matrix,” the “red pill” that conveys a willingness to learn the ugly truth about the world — has a decent cast, a potent message and a promising set-up packaged in a movie without much that passes for a decent fright about it.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Tonya Pinkins, Kathryn Erbe, Adesola A. Osakalumi, Luba Mason, Jake O’Flaherty and Rubén Blades
Credits: Scripted and directed by Tonya Pinkins. A Midnight release.
Running time: 1:26