Written by Garrett Brown – March 5th 2021
Originally published by Film Inquiry
Mascots are terrifying, especially the more human the costume. Coming face-to-face with a being that seemingly has set up residency in the uncanny valley can be horrible to witness for anyone. So it makes sense that “Anvil Al,” the villain of the 2022 film Student Body, commands your attention on screen. Wielding a hammer and a fixed smile, Anvil Al is ready for his close up as he pursues a group of students around the halls of their onscreen high school.
High schools are no stranger to being the setting for horror, but the 2022 film Student Body attempts to innovate and explore the possibilities. Written, directed, and co-produced by Lee Ann Kurr (her feature film debut), Student Body is a fun, but uneven slasher film. Light on scares, the film seems to fit better as a coming of age story for the protagonist Jane Shipley (Montse Hernandez). Like many cinematic final girls, Student Body is a story of a young woman embracing her agency to stand up for herself and survive. The film also attempts to interrogate the system that fails to protect Jane and students like her.
FRIENDS TO THE END
Unfortunately for a genre where characterization matters, the audience is not given much to hold on to. Student Bodies focuses on a group of friends trying to survive a masked killer, centering on the friendship of Jane Shipley and her frenemy Merritt Sinclair (Cheyenne Haynes). The rest of the friend group is made up of Ellis (Anthony Keyvan), Nadia (Harley Quinn Smith), and Eric (Austin Zajur). While Keyvan, Smith, and Zajur all seem like competent actors, their characters unfortunately function mostly as horror movie stock characters, leaving the most interesting character work to Hernandez and Haynes.
Most slasher films take one of two paths: memorable and sympathetic characters that the audience cares for when they die, or uninteresting stock characters who the audience is supposed to hate and wants to see die in creative ways. Student Body has the beginning of interesting character arcs and development, but ultimately there is no time or chance to really dive into development.
With the focus on the uneven power dynamics of Jane and Merritt, the audience is deprived of the opportunity to really understand the wants of Ellis, Nadia, and Eric, and how their personal histories might affect friend group cohesion. Jane appears to be the quiet and meek one, but we never really get a sense of her place, other than being under the thumb of Merritt. The film also introduces some interesting side characters, but they are relegated to being background red herrings.
In the end, the lack of deeper characters is because the film is a coming-of-age drama wearing whodunit -slasher film clothing. I think that the two genres are perfect for each other (see 2022’s Bodies Bodies Bodies as an example), but Lee Ann Kurr could go further and deeper. Horror often provides an opportunity for social commentary, and Student Body provides a chance to dive into school safety and the protection of student lives. When Mr. Aunspach (Christian Camaergo) menaces his students and physically accosts Jane, the school administration is reluctant to discipline him until Merritt threatens to leverage family connections and draw bad publicity, showing the value of status quo versus actual student care.
Lee Ann Kurr also reflects this in the physical buildings. The school turns into a fortress overnight, with shatterproof windows and metal gates, likely designed with an event like an active shooter in mind. Of course, the friend group messes with the system, allowing them to break inside to party (inevitably being trapped, unable to escape from the menacing Anvil Al). Instead of providing students actual safety from potential harm, or working to prevent those events from happening in the first place, the school has developed a quick-fix solution that can only react. Jane eventually has to rescue herself, taking on Anvil Al by herself, as well as facing down Merritt and her toxic manipulation, bringing the film to a bloody conclusion.
ANYWHERE CAN BE TERRIFYING
A point in Student Body’s favor is that the film looks gorgeous. A special shout out to Luka Bazeli the cinematographer, who is capturing an ethereal and haunting look. As the friend group stumbles around the school in shock and fear, they are cast in hazy blues, reds, and purples, unlocking vast emptiness while insinuating that anything could be lurking in the shadows. The high school feels both modern and ancient, a mixture of new and old money. It reminds the audience how much of horror is atmospheric, that a mundane location like a high school can be crawling with nightmares.
Student Body is not a perfect film, but I think that it will serve as a capsule to recognize future artists. I want to see what Lee Ann Kurr will take from working on this film, and apply it to her next venture, to see her grow and mature into a storyteller. While Student Body might not scare the average horror fan, I believe it is worth a watch, and am glad to have had the opportunity to see it. At the very least, it’s a good reminder of the untapped potential of how much sheer terror mascots like Anvil Al can contain.
Have you seen Student Body? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Student Body was released on February 8, 2022!