Extracurricular first look review Arrow FrightFest 2019

Ray Xue’s morally challenging film pits four thrill-killing high schoolers against their community and each other

Extracurricular opens with Ray (Jean Paul Najm) and his newly pregnant girlfriend Gina (Madeleine Claude) arriving for a weekend break at that seminal locus of genre cinema, a cabin in the woods. At this point, there are all manner of horror directions in which the film could go. Ray casually mentions a friend’s similar cabin that was haunted, holding out the promise of something supernatural on the menu; but later that night, the couple is woken by the sound of their car alarm, and comes under attack from a masked figure, suggesting a more straightforward slasher. Except that, as Gina flees Ray’s attacker, another appears, and then another, and finally a fourth, their masks conveniently distinguished by a colour-coded neon glow. This is a tag team of killers, coordinating (and ruthlessly executing) their acts of slaughter. They are also teenagers, as becomes clear when they meet up later that night in a burger joint to decompress and discuss their busy high school schedules and their evolving methodologies of murder.

Written by Matthew Abrams and Padgett Arango, and directed by Ray Xue (Transcendent, 2012), Extracurricular fits a teen thrill kill bill. It is like David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils (2006) and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008) only told from the adolescent aggressors’ point of view, or like Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls (2017) only without the postmodern satire. As this cold-blooded quartet – Miriam Randall (Brittany Raymond), brothers Ian (Spencer Macpherson) and Derek Gordon (Keenan Tracey), and Derek’s girlfriend Jenny Kyoko (Brittany Teo) – plot their next outrage for Halloween, they come under pressure not just from the external force of local investigating sheriff Alan Gordon (Luke Goss), who just happens to be the Gordon bros’ father, but also from their own internal divisions. Where Ian likes to have every little detail of what they do meticulously planned eight moves ahead, Derek prefers the “motherfucking chaos” of improvisation. “No more checklists, no more prepping, planning,” Derek insists “Got enough homework as it is – this is supposed to be fun, not school.” If the boys’ sibling rivalry is not enough of a problem, Miriam of late prefers the company of her friend Layla (Shanel Maida) to that of her co-conspirators, and appears to be seeking a way out of the murderous enterprise that binds the four together. Meanwhile Jenny watches from the wings, waiting for her moment to shine.

The question that hangs over Extracurricular is why these four do what they do, and the answers suggested are multiple and messily complicated. On the one hand, as Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) in Ricky Bates Jr’s Excision (2012) points out, “Solely based on the definition, I don’t know a teenager that doesn’t profile as a sociopath.” There is a sense here that this adolescent serial-killing pact may just be typical teen rites of passage and acts of rebellion gone very, very awry. Yet while Jenny comes from a loveless family, the other three do not, and the unexpected emergence of compassion in some of them threatens to undermine their professions of Nietzschean psychopathy. These are growing pains indeed.

Yet in school, their teacher Mr Vollman (Joshua Joel Bailey) – who admits to having himself gone through difficult phases as a teenager, and whose very name encodes his (now) full adulthood – is teaching them  about Captain John Mason’s massacre of 500 Pequot men, women and children in 1637 (“the Calvinist attitude”, Vollman points out, “gives a lot of latitude to do horrible, horrible things.”), while his next lesson will expressly be on the Jonestown massacre, an occurrence of collective delusion and ultimately self-destruction. His lessons place these kids’ killing spree in a broader context of American history, pointing to a long tradition of callous disregard for others and toxic groupthink.

Extracurricular plays that Hitchcockian game of getting its viewers to sympathise with the devil. We know that what these characters do is incorrigible, indefensible, unconscionable, but at the same time, as the film aligns its focalisation more with the feline side of its tense cat and mouse, we are positioned to want these four main characters to get away with their atrocities, even as we abhor them. This is, of course, a neatly confronting way of exposing the capacity for evil in all of us. And if these four well-fed, high-achieving, middle-class kids are more than happy to exploit, objectify and assassinate strangers for their own kicks, then we are left to wonder what they are capable, when push comes to shove, of doing to their friends, their loved ones and each other. Carefully, the film explores precisely where the ethical boundaries lie for each one of them. The results, though not (morally) pretty, are edifying – and look very impressive on the résumés of all involved.

Extracurricular was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.