Red Letter Day opens with the image of a bleeding young man dragging himself through the streets of an idyllic suburban neighbourhood, desperately hunting for red envelopes in mailboxes before meeting his demise at the business end of an unfriendly neighbourly firearm. This feature debut from Cameron Macgowan may have (several) superficial similarities to The Purge franchise but its suburban satire is just as clearly indebted to the paranoid small town horrors of the 70s and 80s while feeling uncomfortably relevant.
Single mom Emily (Dawn Van de Schoot) and her teenage kids Madison (Hailey Floss) and Timothy (Kaleb Zain Gartner) have just moved to this prefab idyll and are still adjusting to the new set-up when these red letters arrive in the mail. Each resident has been matched with someone they’re supposed to kill, or be killed by. The choice is theirs…
The film works best when it’s picking away at the polite veneer plastered over fear. There’s absolutely nothing forcing these people to hurt each other beyond their fear that the other person might get them first. The “isn’t this silly?” unease is most skilfully played in an early scene in which Emily goes round to her friend’s house, unaware that a worried Timothy has snuck a knife into her handbag for protection. Before long barely-concealed resentments become catalysts for real violence, and Macgowan has great fun turning everyday kitchen objects into part of the gory mayhem.
He’s also clearly interested in exploring how easily suburban paranoia can be triggered, with some people only needing the slightest excuse to lose their minds and grab the nearest sharp object. It’s very familiar territory and the finale can’t quite bring it all home with the note of righteous fury it’s aiming for, especially given how much the filmmakers have clearly enjoyed getting a bit silly in places, but there are effective moments of unease and some very impressive gore effects to be found in the prefab carnage.
Red Letter Day was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.