All paths lead to an unavoidable outcome, at least that’s the conclusion demonstrated by the teenage motley crew facing a nightmarish problem in director Alessio Liguori’s “Shortcut.” If only someone had course-corrected the filmmakers on their own route to making this letdown of a horror road-movie, which gets off to a good start before losing its way. With lackluster character development, a few ill-conceived situations in the second half and dialogue that sounds like it’s been run through Google Translate, there’s only a modest amount of entertainment value found therein.
It was supposed to be an average bus ride home from school for shy high-schooler Nolan (Jack Kane) and his classmates artistic Bess (Sophie Jane Oliver), loudmouth Karl (Zander Emlano), intelligent Queenie (Molly Dew) and rebellious Reggie (Zak Sutcliffe). The kids razz each other, trade prophetic riddles and discuss the rare lunar eclipse happening that night. But once their big-hearted driver Joseph (Terence Anderson) encounters an abandoned construction site with a pile of downed trees blocking the road, everything changes, as they’ve stumbled into a trap set by someone — or something.
They face further roadblocks on their alternate route down an even more remote forest road. Recently escaped convict Pedro (David Keyes) hijacks the bus at gunpoint, and then the vehicle breaks down, leaving them stuck without any resources to call for help. Making matters worse, a murderous monster known as the Nocturne Wanderer has made itself known to them.
Mounting tension peaks fairly early during a knockout sequence, after Joseph has been killed by the inhuman creature and the kids watch through fogged-up windows as Pedro is eaten. The dank, dark tunnel provides an ideal playground for the scares, while Luca Santagostino’s saturated cinematography and Miriam Judith Reichel’s production design make the exterior and interior of the cherry red school bus pop. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s synth-forward score acts as a metronome, suggesting the scared teens’ accelerated heartbeats, while editor Jacopo Reale’s precisely paced cuts match the moody, flickering interior lights. These are delightful touches, complemented by effective sound design that ratchets up the taut atmosphere as the obscured predator taunts its prey, banging and dragging its claws against the metal coffin on wheels.
But the moment the teens step off the bus, fleeing into the catacomb-like military base, the logic, fun and frights plummet drastically. Although “Shourtcut” is respectably brisk in its run time, the filmmakers don’t utilize those precious minutes to their best advantage. They fail to properly carry over many of the elements alluded to in the first act to the finale.
There’s little connection made between the lunar eclipse’s timing and the monster’s appearances, leading to more questions than answers. The wholly unnecessary flashback about an explorer, whose attempt at killing the creature failed miserably, shifts the narrative to his POV when the film should be focused on the kids and their increased pressure to vanquish their petrifying pursuer. The film pays an obvious homage to “Alien 3” when the creature pins a protagonist down, gutturrally growling and slobbering all over them. Yet it plays like a copy of someone else’s homework rather than an exciting element to expand upon their own narrative and aesthetic aims.
Its lean approach to storytelling is also far too economical with thinly drawn characters clearly inspired by “The Breakfast Club,” to the film’s detriment. We assuredly empathize with the distraught youngsters when they lose their kindly chaperone, but the filmmakers don’t make that loss reverberate throughout, as they clearly intend given Nolan’s tribute to Joseph in the final minutes.
The de-facto monster squad is first introduced not by their names, but through tired, outdated personality types. With the exception of Reggie, who transforms from a selfish loner to a courageous leader, the teens don’t get proper character arcs. Karl, whose blowhard bluster inflates his physicality, doesn’t learn anything. Queenie, a tender morsel the monster briefly snacks on, doesn’t undergo any kind of metamorphosis. And mousy introverts Nolan and Bess remain similarly unchanged. Hints at an impending romance between the two are wasted time, as that notion is quickly forgotten.
On the positive side, the notion that the younger generation can defeat forces that traumatized a previous one makes for a noble sentiment slyly fused into the climax. The journey to get there, however, fails to explore the facets that could elicit a rousing response and make this a swift series starter. Instead, the ending cheaply and unapologetically sequel-baits, leaving us to question whether too many shortcuts were taken by the filmmakers in the first place.