Pagan horror is one of the most maligned styles of the horror genre. Though some low-budget efforts like Wake Wood can drag you in a surprising and interesting direction, the bulk are just pretenders to The Wicker Man throne. Even a film as celebrated as Midsommar can’t escape that shadow. This is one flavor of scares that even fifty years of filmmaking can’t break from a rut.
Red Handed, for what it’s worth, attempts to change its pagan cult formula. It tries with heart, making a genuine effort that unfortunately falls well short of its goal.
Director: Frank Peluso
Released: December 3, 2019 (VOD, DVD)
Wanting to be a film about victimhood, redemption, and childhood trauma, Red Handed sends three brothers to a mysterious lake to dump their dad’s ashes. Though it was the stomping grounds of their dad when he was a child, they’d never been around since they themselves were children. Pete (Owen Burke) had an experience here that’s scarred him since, though he can’t remember exactly what it was. One brother brings his wife and child, and soon enough that child’s disappeared into the surrounding woods, and it’s up to this trio (and the handguns they for some reason decided to bring along) to track him down and save the day.
The folk-god worshiping group this time kidnaps children and offers those they don’t kill a snakebite that marks them as lifelong disciples to their deity. Rather than cult sacrifice, we see cult initiation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cult film that wasn’t ultimately about a sacrifice, so that’s something. And with long, sweeping shots of wood-strewn beaches and forested lakes, Red Handed tries to sell a meditative tone on the toll Pete has suffered as an inductee and the families shattered, childhoods lost, due to this group. There are real attempts at drama and thematic resonance, but it’s all bungled with lackluster editing and a sloppy script.
Any and all actions are a low point here. Everyone moves too fast. Shots cut to different takes that don’t line up. A man could be shoving a pistol against a child’s face only for a continuous shot to show him now somehow aiming at the man charging toward him. People get shot in the stomach which later becomes a dead-on hit to the heart. A cultist moves to I guess torture a child, but he just sort of quick-walks to the kid, and then the shot cuts to outside the shed where the kid’s being held captive, and we don’t hear anything. Even that exterior shot disappears in a second. There’s no pan across the torture implement gripped in the cultist’s hand, the child cowering in the background, camera lingering long enough for the audience to take in what’s about to happen—the moment’s gone in a flash, and rather than tense and anxious we’re left bemused.
It doesn’t help that this cult is packed with people who we don’t meet, until they’re about to do some big double-cross or something, and instead of admiring their courage I can only wonder who the hell these people are supposed to be. One guy looking like a middle school science teacher who won a walk-on role in a sweepstakes just steps casually into frame in a black turtleneck and black hat, says “I’ll take care of it” to a cult leader, then steps off-screen and is never seen again.
Add to this dialogue that gives you college-freshmen bits of philosophy like comparing cult mind control symbols with advertising slogans. A woman says, “This is 2018 in America” as a way of implying that there are no dangers to worry about. The plot unmoores itself from any believably in the 11th hour as Pete explains to the big-daddy cult guy that he needs to be set free to complete the initiation ritual of the child, because a blood relative needs to give the boy his snakebite. How the grandmaster of pagan ceremonies forgets this crucial tidbit I don’t know, but he falls for it and frees Pete—even though the both the child-initiate’s mother and grandfather are already evil cultists and are standing in the room right behind him.
The cast, for what it’s worth, does try to sell the drama of Red Handed. Burke especially has a quiet intensity, and holy shit you could watch this man dance with a snake for hours as he intones cultish gibberish. He’s got the moves to seduce any pythons in the room. Unfortunately, those moves aren’t nearly enough to save Red Handed from the sacrificial altar of mediocre pagan horrors.