In Downrange, director Ryuhei Kitamura wants us to sweat. His film, which deals with the bloody aftermath of a blown tire, is suffused with vicious sunlight that scorches everything it comes in contact with. We can almost smell the acrid aroma of heat-softened asphalt and salty aftermath of dried perspiration. But the film is more than just a visual impression, and it’s in the story and acting departments that it falls apart. There’s something admirable about the way Downrange has stripped away the skin and viscera of a horror film to reveal nothing but the meat, however, what’s there is gristly and tough, and perhaps a bit rotten.
Downrange opens on a sunbaked stretch of backroads. An older model SUV full of carpooling college students is cruising along when it has a blowout. The car swerves violently, smacking one passenger’s head against the glass. Once everyone has calmed down, the men start trying to change the tire — a way to signal their masculinity which doesn’t particularly impress any of the women. It seems like a mundane pit stop — until they discover a bullet in the blown out tire. More bullets start to fly, forcing the survivors to take cover.
Kitamura’s film is clearly inspired by the brutal, violent horror films that cropped up in the 1970s. The most obvious allusion is to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Like that earlier masterpiece, most of Downrange takes place in the daylight, and Kitamura creates the sensation of a similarly oppressive heat. Yet he also has a more direct — and more recent — reference to that horror franchise that augurs poorly for the film’s success. After the first victim is shot through the eye, Kitamura’s camera goes directly through the dead body’s bleeding, pulpy canal and out through their wound — a shot that is a direct reference to Marcus Nispel’s execrable remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (2003). Nispel’s film is suffused with an all-consuming nihilism, paired with a perverse delight in its violence; Kitamura doesn’t take quite the same kind of delight in suffering, but neither does he create characters the audience could ever care about.
Much of that blame has to fall on screenwriter Joey O’Bryan, whose screenplay is a prime example of why horror films tend to fall into such rote patterns — it works more often than not. Horror aficionados might not care for the way those films tend to telegraph the final girl early on, but that doesn’t mean killing off Sigourney Weaver three quarters of the way through Alien (1979) would be an improvement. O’Bryan seems determined to subvert the grooves that horror films settle into, but without any meaningful goal. Occasionally he succeeds; rather than wedging in some kind of romance or sexual attraction, two of the stranded travelers are married, and their story provides the audience with a needed dose of empathy. Yet O’Bryan steps all over himself by only telling that story long after it matters, which robs it of emotional immediacy.
Americans have seen enough stories of people encountering unfamiliar gunmen for the film to still be chilling.
Kitamura makes up for some of the screenplay’s deficiencies with his visual acumen. Post-blowout and pre-shootout, he manages to film the carpoolers with an elegant air of dread. They’re often shot from low angles facing skyward; all we see behind their heads are clouds and blue sky. In isolation they might make for serene stills, but in context they emphasize just how alone and vulnerable these people are. The film mostly eschews music in these early scenes, and though the sound of wind and rustling leaves might otherwise be serene, the knowledge that this is a horror film makes us wonder what else might be hiding in the seemingly empty landscape.
Downrange’s actors undercut that effective mood as soon as the shooting begins. None are particularly skilled actors, but rather than under-emoting, they turn every emotion up to 11. There are plenty of anguished cries of despair and snotty yelps. Every negative development seems to inspire someone to bang their head against the car in outrage. It’s possible to use this kind of scenery chewing effectively, but none of the actors have developed that technique yet.
This isn’t to say that Downrange is a completely unsuccessful film. Sure, its low budget origins show at every turn, and the movie isn’t quite trashy enough to be fun. But Americans have seen enough stories of people encountering unfamiliar gunmen for the premise to still be chilling. Kitamura and O’Bryan may not have been specifically inspired by mass shootings while making Downrange, but it’s impossible to view the film without thinking of all the recent instances of mass murder by loons with giant firearms. Another recent horror film, Winchester, attempted to put a faux-sheen of respectability on its exploitation of gun victims; Downrange doesn’t try to hide its exploitative nature, paradoxically making it the more honest film. If the film’s killer had just picked off his victims with a knife or an axe, it would have made for a humdrum slasher film. But a gun? Now that’s scary.
Downrange debuts April 26 as a Shudder exclusive.