Although it’s being marketed as a horror film, “The Curse of Downers Grove” turns out to be something else — a messy hash of teen soap opera, stalker thriller and whatnot whose titular, possibly supernatural aspect is basically irrelevant. This pileup of elements never meshes or becomes convincing in Derick Martini’s screenplay, co-adapted by exec producer Bret Easton Ellis from Michael Hornberg’s 1999 novel. Nonetheless, the pic’s combination of familiar faces and genre tropes should give it a decent leg up in home formats. It opens at the AMC Burbank Town Center 8 this Friday, simultaneous with its digital HD launch; VOD release follows on Sept. 1.
In the titular Chicago suburb (though the production was shot in Southern California), there’s an alleged curse on a high school recently built on contested Native American land: Each year, one senior dies just before graduation. It’s a subject of endless fascination for students, even if the deaths so far can be explained more routinely as the consequences of drug abuse, DUIs and so forth. Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) is a skeptic on the matter, her experiences with an abandoning meth-head father having taught her that life is a matter of choices, not fate. Meanwhile, her own principal choices seem to be between two male friends with the potential to be something more: longtime peer pal Ian (Mark L. Young, whose eventually key character is left drastically underdeveloped) and dreamy garage mechanic Bobby (Lucas Till, the “X-Men” movies).
Bachelor No. 3, however, is an unwelcome interloper. When her sluttier BFF, Tracy (Penelope Mitchell), insists they go to a college party in the next county, Chrissie is nearly raped by star quarterback Chuck (Kevin Zegers). Fending him off, she deals out some significant physical damage that might well end the roid-raging jock’s pro sports career before it’s begun.
As payback, Chuck and his fellow goons set about terrorizing our heroine and her loved ones, including little brother Dave (Zane Holtz). Things come to a somewhat ludicrous climax as she goes full “Straw Dogs” on the invaders of a house party she’s been roped into throwing by Dave and Tracy. (Mrs. Swanson, played by Helen Slater, is conveniently off to Las Vegas with a beau during all this.) Yet even that’s not enough, as the overladen, logic-gap-riddled story piles on one last major twist that manages to be both pat and utterly gratuitous.
One is tempted to lay the blame for the screenplay’s ill-judged excesses at the feet of Ellis, who is certainly no stranger to shaking up lurid cocktails of sex, drugs, violence, pretentious verbiage and flippant youth slang. But many of the pic’s faults (including some of the most overblown dialogue) seem taken directly from the book, even if some of the latter’s narrative and character elements have been modified. (In print, Chrissie was a bit of a “grunge girl,” but such ’90s pop-culture specifics are eliminated or vaguely updated here.) “The Curse of Downers Grove” is Martini’s first directorial feature since adapting another labored, studiedly shocking novel about a teenage girl, 2011’s “Hick.” His taste in literature is questionable — a much more credible and nuanced approximation of real life was offered by “Lymelife,” the 2008 debut he co-wrote with brother Steve (who plays a police detective here).
Slick, hectic and varying degrees of silly, “Curse” is earnest one minute and overblown the next; it’s hard to tell just how tongue-in-cheek its cliches in either camp are intended to be at any moment in time. If there’s an underlying joke here, no one informed the performers, who range from competent to hammy and hapless in one-dimensional roles. (Least fortunate are those stuck playing caricatured villains, notably Tom Arnold as Chuck’s brutish ex-cop father.)
The entire “curse” hook proves nothing more than a red herring — or perhaps something to be developed later, as the forlorn parting promise of an unlikely sequel suggests. Chrissie has waking visions and nightmares of a predictive nature, yet this paranormal aspect is never really integrated into the narrative. Worse, the flashy, repetitive montages they occasion are extended into a 10-minute final sequence (encompassing closing credits) so utterly pointless it feels like a DVD-extra deleted scene accidentally tacked onto the completed feature.
Tech/design elements are polished if somewhat cluttered, with elements of black-and-white and 35mm shooting in d.p. Frank Godwin’s lensing.