Review: Detention


It’s a shame that Detention is being released on the same day as The Cabin in the Woods. Like that film, Detention serves as something of a deconstruction of the horror genre, but just saying that completely misses the point. It’s more Scary Movie than it is Scream. It plays with the conventions not to form any kind of serious analysis or debate but to have fun. Unfortunately, when people see that there are two horror movies that play with genre conventions, chances are they will go with Joss Whedon’s latest.

And do I blame them? No. No I don’t. But it’s equivalent to releasing a first person shooter on the same day as a new Call of Duty. Detention will get buried, tossed aside as that other deconstructionist horror movie. But it deserves your attention. If you’re going to the movies this weekend and you’re in one of the markets where Detention is getting a release, I implore you to choose that instead. The Cabin in the Woods will stay around awhile. Detention will disappear into the void.

But at least that will make the void just a little bit more awesome.

Director: Joseph Khan
Release Date: 4/13/12 (Limited)
Rating: R

As a sophomore in college, I’m only about two years out of high school. Sure, a lot of things have happened in those two years, but that’s really not a long time. I say this because I want you to know that I have no nostalgia for high school. Maybe in ten years or twenty, I’ll look back on the good old days and wonder what happened. As for right now, I remember my time pretty vividly, both the good and the bad.

Detention, which is set in a high school, does look at the whole thing nostalgically. Following a series of murders, the student body is on edge (mostly because of its potential to ruin their prom), and a group of kids has to figure out who the killer is before one of their own is taken next. So it seems like a shoe-in to be a nostalgic look at the good old days of the slasher films: the 1980s. But it isn’t. Even though it’s set in modern times, its nostalgia dates back to 1992. So while it seems appropriate that I look at the film as someone relatively fresh out of high school, it’s not so much on the nostalgia front, because I wasn’t even making memories in 1992. Hell, I wasn’t even walking in 1992.

Dane Cook as Principal Verge Detention 2011

When I first got the press materials for Detention, I was immediately intrigued and confused. They referred to the film as an “apocalyptic fantasy, horror, science fiction, action-thriller, body swapping, time-traveling teen romantic comedy,” and I was more than a little apprehensive. Usually when a film’s genre cannot be described in less than four adjectives, things have gone terribly wrong and the movie ends up terrible. Well, that didn’t happen here. Two things are true about Detention:

  1. It pulled off the whole insane genre defying thing incredibly well.
  2. Ten adjectives aren’t nearly enough to properly explain the insane genre-defying thing.
It would be impossible for me properly explain what exactly Detention is because I still don’t know. I’ve been mulling it over in my mind ever since I saw it, and I keep coming up with blanks. It’s almost as though the writers were playing Mad Libs and then got drunk and convinced themselves that the little book was a screenplay. And I’m not even joking. I have no idea what kind of thought could have gone into this writing process outside of playing around with refrigerator magnets until they spelled out phrases like “bully infused with fly blood” and “time-travelling mascot bear.”

Josh Hutcherson

But let me be clear: I loved the insanity, however it came about. It’s a bizarre universe, and I completely believed that the fly-blooded, acid-vomiting bully existed in the world where building time machines seems to have been a class assignment. But even with that craziness, there’s plenty of real people and real situations to keep things from falling apart.

No, most of probably can’t relate to being chased by someone dressed up as the latest horror movie monster (in this case “Cinderhella”) and weilding an axe, but the moments where the kids are interacting — when a girl kisses her friend in an attempt to make her crush jealous or when two friends text instead of talk even though they’re sitting right next to each other — feel very real. Sure, they may seem like clichés, but they are things that actually happen, and I don’t know if everyone remembers that. Certainly people who didn’t have texting when they were in high school might see it as strange or some kind of degradation of our culture, but those of us still in school in the past five years know that it’s completely normal and some kind of degradation of our culture.

Fortunately, these moments don’t exist as entirely separate entities from each other. There isn’t a crazy scene followed by a rational scene followed by a crazy scene, etc. etc. Instead, the rationality is woven into the craziness… or maybe it’s the other way around. I still don’t know.

Spencer Locke

In 1992, things are dramatically different. Director Joseph Kahn said in my interview with him that he wanted to show just how much things have changed in the past 20 years. We see a lot of movies that look back to the 1980s, but the 90s are kind of ignored. I imagine that eventually we’ll be seeing a lot of period pieces featuring the musical stylings of The Backstreet Boys and the like, but for the moment they’re a rarity, which makes Detention stand out even more.

Even though I wasn’t really around for the early 90s, I certainly felt its effects growing up, which made me really appreciate what Detention did. It was really cool for me to see what people around my current age were like way back when I was born. Or at least a dramatized version of them. I will say that one of the coolest moments in the film is the first time that the film transitions from the present to the past. It moves back in three year increments, showing the changing in clothing styles while also shifting the impressive licensed soundtrack to match the year. I couldn’t name all of the songs, but I’d certainly heard them all before, and it was probably one of the most effective ways to create a nostalgic effect that I have ever seen.

Josh Hutcherson and Shanley Caswell as prom king and queen

As I said (or at least implied) earlier, Detention is wrapped in the framework of a slasher film, and it succeeds on that level as well. The kills are bloody, over the top, and funny. Even so, they are simply there as a means to an end. The way the teenagers and people in the community react to the deaths is far more important, and when the deaths slow to a trickle for a large portion of the film so time-traveling (and other crazy) antics can get underway, that’s completely okay. I didn’t miss them. What was happening was just as great without all of the gore, although it was never completely out of sight or out of mind.

What really matters, though, is the characters. They’re stupid, irrational, ridiculous, and completely realistic, and that’s why Detention works so well. That’s what teenagers are like. I sure as hell was like that a few years ago. I’m still like that to some extent. I could relate to their feelings and emotions, and I could understand and sympathize with their actions and reactions. Maybe you won’t feel the same way I do. Maybe it’s been too long since you were a teenager or you were a teenager years ago when people talked instead of texting. But it’s real. In the middle of a bizarre, apocalyptic, body-swapping, time-travelling, romantic teen horror comedy, etc. etc., everyone feels completely real and completely honest.

Screw Bully, this is the movie that teenagers need to see.

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