The Horror of Kent

Inglourious Basterds isn't the only movie out to feature a baseball bat as lethal weapon. Arriving on DVD this week is Frayed (Lionsgate, $26.98), the bloody product of three local filmmakers from Kent. Rob Portmann, Kurt Svennungsen, and Norbert Caoili (pictured L-R) grew up in the VHS era when Freddie and Jason were running amok with hockey masks, axes, and other murder instruments. The movie begins with a piñata bashing at a childhood birthday party; 13 years later, wouldn't you just know that the kid would be escaping a mental ward to resume his killing spree and threaten his surviving family. Truth be told, compared to Basterds, the R-rated Frayed isn't that gruesome. And compared to Eli Roth in Basterds, the acting's pretty solid.

Plot-wise, Frayed breaks little new ground, though viewers will recognize home ground locations including St. Edward State Park. The film recapitulates some fun, familiar conventions, but also breaks one important rule for a good slasher flick...

It's a given that teens should disobey their parents in a horror movie. That means two girls should go camping with their boyfriends and beer in the dark woods--exactly the kind of place where a murderous psycho would be hanging out. Frayed teases us with the prospect of sex and bared boobs, since--in the Final Girl theory of filmmaking--the nice girl who doesn't fool around should get to survive the movie.

Here, however, the bad girl isn't that bad, and the nice girl (is the daughter of the local sheriff) isn't particularly brave or resourceful. Their two dates we expect to die, although the order of the killing and the personalities of those slain doesn't hew quite to formula in Frayed. Also, the psycho killer in the woods lacks a signature weapon. His hallmark is a childishly drawn mask--not far different from the lurker in the mumblecore fright flick Baghead.

For students of horror, Frayed's first gimmick isn't hard to guess. How'd the killer escape the loony bin? No spoilers, but pay attention to the costuming. What's his motive? That's revealed in the twist ending. Before we get there, various bodies pile on the floor and the two girls flee home to close all the doors and hide in the bathroom while the killer implacably closes in--standard stuff, as old as D.W. Griffith, and reasonably satisfying.

However, as in the 2003 French horror flick High Tension, Frayed makes a dishonest leap from the killer's psychosis to audience perception. The criminally insane are entitled to their delusions--we expect that in a horror movie. But there's a corollary to the Final Girl, which could be called the Harvey rule. If Jimmy Stewart, in that 1950 movie, is talking to a giant rabbit we can't see, we know he's nuts. (Though not nutty enough to run around slaughtering people, which actually would've improved the film.) And if we can see the giant rabbit (as in Donnie Darko), then we can be even more sure the protagonist is disturbed--maybe even with a split personality.

But what you can't do in a horror film is have the other characters see and respond to the imaginary friend ("Look, there's a giant rabbit! Everybody run in terror!"), then go back and explain, sorry!, it was all a figment of Jimmy Stewart's imagination. You don't need Tarantino to tell you that.

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