With the release of Halloween in 1979, horror films became a slashing playground for boys. Many filmmakers took the voyeuristic and sexual aspects of Halloween without remembering the strong woman who survives the night. For the next thirty years the glint of a sharp instrument accompanied a few unclothed teenage bodies and a whole lot of blood. It was a good gig, an easy way for filmmakers to get noticed, and until the advent of Scream the slasher continued mostly unchanged.
These days the slasher has become second fiddle to found footage. Then with Cabin in the Woods, it seemed like the days of a teenage crew picked off by a mysterious assailant. It's a shame that All the Boys Love Mandy Lane didn't receive its proper release in 2006 instead of a limited run earlier this year. It was already working at deconstructing the slasher with far more interest and subtlety than Cabin or even Scream could have ever hoped for.
Entertaining as both of those postmodern films are, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane doesn't treat the slasher like a joke with a typical punchline. Director Jonathan Levine, who has also directed the very good Warm Bodies and excellent 50/50, isn't interested in a bunch of sardonic teens quipping ironically about their surroundings. But he's also not interested in just providing the thrill of a good slasher. His film is a deliberate journey into the past, and how the genre still has much to offer.
The title, though unwieldly, is an apt summation of Mandy Lane's (Amber Heard) problems. She's the virginal treasure of high school, prized for her body before smarts, and the object of conquest for all the boys. In a chilling opening segment, two insecure suitors Emmet (Michel Welch) and Dylan (Adam Powell) push one another in their attempts to grab her attention. Dylan tries jumping from the roof to his pool, hits his head on the side, and dies.
Screenwriter Jacob Forman, makes the curious decision to jump nine months ahead. How Mandy feels during this time about the accident and her reputation is not discussed but not the topic for consideration. What's important is that the legend of Mandy's unattainable beauty grows in the wake of Dylan's death. Even Emmet, who is blamed for Dylan's death, is still trying to get her attention. Mandy is just an idea to be pursued, not a person to know.
I loved the scenario and, for the most part, Forman's script is packed with strong decisions. The teens that Mandy joins for a country vacation are all rough sketches, ideas of people that we may have known in high school. But it's their shared immaturity, from the fumbling pass of a self-proclaimed nice guy to the hidden desires of one of the girls, that necessitates this. It's not just the boys, but the girls as well, who are obsessed with the chaste. Forman's plotting falters when a killer appears to stalk Mandy and pick off her companions. A few of the awkward flashbacks and explanations are too self-contained in style to relate to the rest of the experience, with one detail about the killer that stands glaringly apart.
What clunkiness exists in the script is redeemed by Levine's direction. Levine, along with cinematographer Darren Genet, makes the conscious choice to blend different styles from the '70s. The most notable influence is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Mandy's tour into fully lit and harshly filtered terror, but also a few surprising visual references to Terence Malick's Days of Heaven with Mandy's endless fields and inviting safe house. It's not remembered as a horror film, but the trauma of trying to reclaim a lost past for a better future can be just as horrible as a masked killer.
Mandy's myth is born from a violent need to possess as well as a misguided dream. No one ever asks the virginal queen how she feels about this reputation so she creates a scenario that let's everyone play their part. Levine blends those styles to reflect Mandy's view of herself, separate and disgusted by the attention. The soundtrack gradually joins in, "Won't you meet me in the middle" goes the chorus of America's "Sister Golden Hair", and the mix of styles results in beautiful horror. Amber Heard works through this ground with great confidence, willing to play into any story written for her but only for so long.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane succeeds because it realizes those myths still have dangerous power. Poking fun at them can only go so far, eventually we have to rediscover that they come from a deeply insecure place. Mandy isn't as simple as her wannabe lovers need to pretend, and is ready to make her own legacy.
Directed by Jonathan Levine.
Screenplay written by Jacob Forman.
Starring Amber Heard.