Original concepts in the horror genre are few and far between these days and the only way filmmakers can seemingly plough into new territory is to flip old plot tropes on their head and defy convention in order to revitalise tired plot lines and overused cliches.
One of the latest movies to try and mix shit up in order to try and find something fresh is Netflix’s, Italian frightener, A Classic Horror Story, a tale that deliberately plays up to riffing on as many other movies as it possibly can in order to affect a rug pull that you hopefully won’t see coming.
Of course, the danger of purposely referencing as many horror movies as you can means that if your payoff doesn’t cut the mustard, you’re potentially left with a story utterly devoid of originality.
A disparate group of people looking to carpool to Calabria all board a camper van owned by the nerdy Fabrizio and settle in for the ride while their “host” tries to keep their spirits up by filming annoying welcomes on his phone. The group contains Eliza, who is travelling to her parent’s home in order to get an abortion, loved up couple Sofia and Mark and flinty doctor, Riccardo and as the conversation labours slightly, the trip takes a sinister turn when an inebriated Mark takes over driving duties and crashes the van after swerving to avoid a goat carcass in the road.
The crash renders all of the occupants unconscious and the wake to find that not only does Mark have a broken leg, but the road they were travelling on is nowhere to be seen, with the busted van now somehow in the middle of a dense forrest.
Unsurprisingly, the group are unnerved by this happenstance and a trek through the woods eventually leads them first to an altar, complete with statues formed out of branches and still bloody pig heads, and then to a sinister wooden building that looks like the church from Mandy boffed the cabin from The Evil Dead. With no other shelter available to them, the ever-more freaked out gang enter and hunker down for the night where tempers inevitably start to fray but the oncoming night has worse things for them yet. After the discovery of a scared, tongueless girl cocooned in branches in an upstairs room, it becomes apparent a shadowy cult, who are fond of local legends, wooden masks and enthusiastically mutilating their victims have targeted them for a drawn out sacrifice. If any of them want to escape this hellish scenario with their eyes, ears and tongue intact, they’re going to have to survive the night – but unbeknownst to them, nothing and nobody is actually what it seems…
To accurately get across my feelings about A Classic Horror Film, I would have to go deep into spoiler territory and simply because it’s not that great a movie, that’s exactly what I’m going to do – so if you wanna ditch the review here, that’s cool with me.
For those of you who stayed, I have to proclaim the film as being one of the most derivative horror movies I’ve seen in a while – however, this is actually, for the most part, by design aftercwe find out exactly what’s actually going on. The opening hour literally empties a huge bucket of undending visual and spoken references to other movies (some classic, some modern) that runs virtually constantly, no matter what actually is occuring on screen. The group bare more than a passing resemblance to the clutch of van riding hippies from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Fabrizio in particular looks incredibly like the Franklin character sans his wheelchair and excessive raspberry blowing), the cult and the riffs keep going from there. Lost in the woods? Blair Witch. Wooden faced cult? Kill List. Torture by ankle shattering? Misery. Death by large, skull boring device? Apostle. The list is literally endless and even the characters suggest that maybe they’ve died in the crash and are currently wandering in the afterlife, I think they’re referencing tge forgotten French, 2003 mystery thriller Dead End. After a while it all becomes a little tiresome for anyone with a half decent knowledge of the horror genre, but directors Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli at least keep the visuals fittingly grim, the tension high and the deaths nice and nasty until we finally get to our plot upending twist.
However, its here the problems really become apparent, because even though the big surprise is that everything feels like a generic cult-in-the-woods flick because Fabrizio has engineered things that way in order to film an epic, amateur snuff movie that’s being funded by the mafia (no, really). However, instead of changing tactics to shift the tone from the reference strewn horror show our villain has deliberately taken pains to realise, the movie – now free of having to pander to Fabrizio’s adolescent whims – still continues of giving us endless nods to other movies when it should be treading it’s own path. So now the movie gives us shameless tips of the hat to Midsommar, Texas Chainsaw (again) and Hostel even though it’s own plot requires that it probably shouldn’t.
As a result, the film gets stuck in a rut, weirdly playing to other movie’s conventions when it’s quite clearly trying to forge it’s own path and the continuing barrage of second hand horror iconography dilutes any meaning the twist should have. A film that did this much better despite hardly containing a shred of subtlety is Drew Goddard’s wonderfully topsy turvy The Cabin In The Woods, which also features characters manipulated into a fake/real horror scenario while others record their progress that is fiercely abnormal, but A Classic Horror Story is content to just recycle better movies into a painfully familiar plot. It’s not a bad movie. Just a deeply unoriginal one.
Shot with flare and featuring a nicely nihilistic ending (predictably nicked from elsewhere), A Classic Horror Story is one that’s been told one too many times before…