One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. Because it’s Horrors Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re highlighting some of the best unsung slasher movies.
You have sex, you die. That’s one of the hard rules of horror laid out by video-store geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Wes Craven’s Scream. It’s also the very cliché subverted by one of that movie’s best (but least seen) imitators. Directed by Geoffrey Wright, of Romper Stomper fame, Cherry Falls puts a clever spin on a common slasher trope: The homicidal maniac on the loose in a quiet Virginia community is only targeting virgins, meaning that the chastity that traditionally protects kids in this genre is the very thing putting them under the knife. So what’s a town of scared, horny teenagers to do but organize a mass orgy? It’s for their own protection! Honest, Mom and Dad!
Arriving during the short-lived slasher revival of the late ’90s/early 00s, Cherry Falls didn’t enjoy even the modest success of such junky “dead teenager” throwbacks as Urban Legend, Valentine, and Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s own I Know What You Did Last Summer. The film’s troubled production dovetailed with the censorship hysteria that followed the Columbine shootings, with the MPAA repeatedly slapping the movie with an NC-17. The gun-shy distributor, USA Films, eventually opted to not even release Cherry Falls in theaters, instead premiering a heavily edited version on the USA Network. With a $14 million budget, it became the most expensive television movie ever, before basically dropping off the face of the earth.
All that nervous snipping took its toll: The violence in Cherry Falls isn’t just tame but kind of choppy, resulting in a slasher movie that’s at its worst during the actual slashing scenes. But if Wright’s film isn’t half as scary or funny as Craven’s, plenty of idiosyncratic pleasures survived the editing-room massacre. For one thing, the performances are a cut above the norm. The late Brittany Murphy, playing another high-schooler five years after Clueless, is an enormously appealing Final Girl—smart, sweet, and eccentric. And she’s surrounded by a highly capable supporting cast, including Terminator star Michael Biehn as her character’s sheriff father, Jay Mohr as a mild-mannered teacher, and a bunch of young actors who come closer than the usual slasher expendables to capturing the awkwardness of adolescence.
But the most interesting thing about Cherry Falls is probably its sexual politics. The killer’s tortured backstory may be melodramatic, but it works as a rebuttal to the slut-shaming revelations of Scream, drawing a line of connection between the repressive prudishness of its authority figures—some more concerned about their kids getting laid than about them getting stabbed—and their history of quietly covering up their own indiscretions. Slasher movies have long been criticized for their not-so-secret conservatism, the way their rampages can be read as a puritanical punishment for promiscuity. But Cherry Falls, like Craven’s original Nightmare On Elm Street, takes a different path, questioning the old-school values of elders who don’t know best. Identifying the rules of slasher cinema is one thing. Really cutting them to ribbons is another.
Availability: Cherry Falls is available on a spiffy Scream Factory Blu-ray from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.