A cross between the citizen-on-citizen violence of The Purge and some twisted morality test that The Dark Knight‘s Joker might have dreamed up, Cameron MacGowan’s Red Letter Day offers a bloody and sometimes bitingly funny look what animosity and paranoia could be hidden below the surface of a civilized society. The pat interactions of the family at its center often come across as awkward, and there is a sense of those behind the scenes trying too hard to showcase some horror street-cred, but when the film settles into its violent satire, there is some good fun to be had.
The mayhem and dark comedy start early, as a barefoot, bath-robed man desperately tries to collect mysterious red envelopes from the mailboxes of a quiet, suburban development community called Aspen Ridge. This is a place where neighbors wave hello, that’s advertised via an all-too-realistic infomercial as somewhere safe to raise a family. But do those neatly sided homes and meticulously manicured lawns hide something more sinister, something not so easily washed away by a garden hose?
It’s in this situation that Red Letter Day finds single mother Melanie and her teenage children, Maddie and Tim. The trio has recently moved in, and while they find their new surroundings to be a little on the tame side, perhaps the wholesome stability isn’t such a bad thing after what appears to have been a not-so-amicable divorce. However, the appearance of three of those aforementioned red envelopes causes some unease; each letter contains a photo of a neighbor that the recipient has been matched with, as well as an assignment: kill that person before they kill you.
Perhaps this is all merely a sick prank pulled by some young punks, or perhaps there’s some anarchic plot afoot. Whatever the case, the seeds of suspicion have been planted, and wary eyes begin sizing up those around them. While some of the early verbal cat-and-mouse play as neighbors feel out each other’s survival instincts provides decent tension, Red Letter Day is at its best once the overlong, forced character development gets out of the way. The actors do their best in trying to create naturalistic banter from lightweight sentences, but the script (also by MacGowan) tends to thinks it’s more clever than it really is. Early dialogue crams both too much and too little into interactions, often leaning heavily on gentle ribbing and pop culture asides before remembering that there was some exposition to convey.
But does the audience really need to know that Hailey is into Goth culture? Or that Tim reads horror movie magazines and thinks his mom’s friend is cute? Numerous references are made to traits that don’t really contribute any understanding of these people, nor do they ever pay off in any way, so it may have been better to jump right into blood and guts of this allegory.
Thankfully, once that premise is finally capitalized on, Red Letter Day feels much more comfortable in its sopping, stained shoes. As the veneer of this mundane community begins to slip, these yuppies and retirees hunt each other with utter ruthlessness, exposing rifts between different societal groups. As one aging Gen-Xer stands over a sobbing teen with his already sullied sledgehammer, the young man pleads “You don’t have to do this!” The elder man replies with a sly grin at his millennial victim, “No. But I want to.” Similarly, two women display the mistrust between political opposites purporting to be close friends; their strained niceties don’t last long when push comes to shove.
During such moments, Red Letter Day displays a wicked gleam in its bloodied eye, as chaos breaks loose while civility starts to crumble. Along the way there are some other nice touches, such as a surprising encounter with a religious woman that doesn’t play into typical genre depictions, and a devilishly satisfying broken jaw that earns the special effects and makeup departments a good deal of credit.
Though it never dives deep enough into its subject matter to have any lasting impact, the lean, 76-minute runtime makes for a refreshingly quick romp that doesn’t overstays its welcome. Red Letter Day might not be as memorable as many of the movies it makes casual reference to, but it’s a mildly entertaining way to pass the time.