Three film studies college students are eager to win their class’s short film contest with story idea Street Walkers, a genre blending horror movie that crosses “Pretty Woman” with “The Walking Dead.” On their first night of shooting, isolated on the empty streets of Stoker Hills, their actress and friend is suddenly abducted right before their camera lens and instantly give chase without a second to call the authorities, falling right into the maniac’s nightmarish world. Left behind for two detectives is the students’ tell-all camera, leaving behind the recording as the only clue into tracking down their undisclosed whereabouts and stopping the kidnapping-killer. As the detectives home in on the killer’s lair, only hours are left before a determined and desperate madman drains every single drop of their youthful blood for a deadly selfish cause.
Director Benjamin Louis and “Stoker Hills” want you to believe in their compelling and bloody slasher narrative of periled college students fighting for their lives against a formidable, resilient killer while two resolute detectives sniff out the mystery of their disappearance before it’s too late. However, in “Stoker Hills,” nothing is as it appears to be. As the first feature script penned and produced by Jonah Kuehner, the “State’s Evidence” director, Benjamin Louis, coproduces the sheeny cinematic slasher that hits upon almost every known trope in the book by incorporating a backwoods nook, a torturous rec room, and foggy night underneath a vividly complete full moon into a story that’s one part found footage and one part cop thriller. Benjamin and cinematographer John Orphan (“The Black String”) do a phenomenal job crafting away from a Los Angeles look and into an unrecognizable, any-town-America by shooting at the dead of night in L.A.’s low-lit surrounding areas of Griffith Park and the Angeles National Forrest without focusing in on or revealing well-known landmarks. “Wildling’s” Rab Butler and Timothy Christian coproduces the 2020 teen-mystery slasher.
“Stoker Hills” begins very much in the same way as my last review of Seth Landau’s “Bryan Loves You” with a deep-in-character production by the great Tony Todd (“Candyman”) as a film studies professor. Instead of warning audiences to look away if frightened or to be ushered out of the theater when shocked beyond just stomaching the content, Todd’s professor of cinema is passionate and enthusiastic about what great filmmaking and the auteurs who wield their work upon the world. However, much like “Bryan Loves You,” Tony Todd only dabbles into the narrative with a superficial house role that opens the doors for Ryan (David Gridley, “The Unhealer”), Jake (Vince Hill-Bedford, “Sorority Slaughterhouse”), and Erica (Steffani Brass, “Ted Bundy”), three slackjaw, maybe even indolent, students eager to take “The Walking Dead” and turn it into a “Pretty Woman” romance comedy known as “Street Walkers.” The concept is no Guillermo del Toro or Martin Scorsese, but nonetheless barely sates the professor’s threadbare faith in the three’s semester-ending grade. Along the way, we’re introduced laterally to character who will eventually be integrated into the story later and at a state of prominence to the mystery, such as with fellow star student Dani Brooks (television actress Tyler Clark) and her university benefacting donor Dr. Jonathan Brooks (John Beasley, “The Purge: Anarchy”). “Stoker Hills” also isn’t entirely linear as the footage soon appears to be corrupted only to be on pause by two officers investigating the case and analyzing the video. William Lee Scott (“Identity”) and Eric Etebari (“Scream at the Devil”) play the high-blood pressure, blue collar, family-man Detective Bill Stafford and a sophisticated bachelor and quasi-Rain man Detective Adams respectively. The Scott and Etebari cop drama show entertains as less CSI and more NYPD Blue or Law & Order with a conspicuous partner correlation only to be separated by adding snippets of out of context humanity, such as why Adam’s is a loner and Stafford hates changing baby diapers. Powerful stuff. Each character is connected to “Stoker Hills'” antagonist, Charles Muyer (Jason Sweat), who’s been abducting young, healthy people off the streets and into his vacant buildings of intravenous drips of blood into a milk crate-based cylinder beaker tube. Thomas R. Martin, Joy McElveen, Maya Nucci, Michael Faulkner, and “Eraser’s” Danny Nucci round out the cast.
Director Benjamin Louis cherry picks the best traits from a triad of genres to smush together into one trope-tastic “Stoker Hills” A lumbering mute killer bred to annihilate in his nihilism from the slasher genre, two dedicated detectives determined to catch a killer and able to snoop out clues out of nothing that’s familiar toward the cop drama genre, and a pair of brosefs, who dude each other in every other line of dialogue no matter if it’s joshing in film studies class or being chased harrowingly through the woods and having their foot snagged in the teeth of a beartrap, pulling from the pot-smoking and arrogant hijinks of two immature college aged guys usually hovering around the teen comedy category. All the actors really get into their parts to the point of a fault in creating a bogus, simulated environment as if a knockoff matrix, coded by naive aliens who know nothing of the human race other than watching “American Pie,” “Law & Order,” and every Renaissance era slasher film, is being pulled over the eyes. The whole ordeal that has a context surrounding Charles Muyer’s bad pig heart is also grossly under kneaded and bordering nonsensical until the ending. That game changing ending spooled by meta wiring puts in perspective every last minute of the well-paced 91-minute film, and when the narrative quickly closes upon itself and fades to black into the credits, every scene previously pondered and examined, crisscrossed into a mental algorithm that breaks down character arcs and progression devices, and spits out answers like an Amazon Alexa has suddenly last all its calculated determination in a snap of a flash. Kudos to “Stoker Hills'” screenwriter Jonah Kuehner for conceiving an overtreated trope decoy story and kudos to director Benjamin Louis in pulling the wool over our eyes without flinching or showing his cards too early.
Everybody run for “Stoker Hills” and become caught up in a diabolical twist that’ll deflate the suspense out of you but also leave you pleasantly surprised. 101 Films released this film last month, March 28th, on digital platforms. Since “Stoker Hills” is solely a digital release from UK distributor, there are no audio or video specs to note or review. Aforementioned, John Orphan helms the “Stoker Hills” noir and no-nonsense veneer which is and also the minor league Jigsaw traps are very “Saw”-like, even down to peppering certain scenes with over illuminating primary color gels if by spotlight. Roc Chen, a profound composer for China over the last decade, notes a less than impactful score in what could be considered more run of the mill material, but that also could play into the whole narrative twist. There were no bonus features available with the film nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. At first glance, “Stoker Hills” treads over the same worn trodden path of slasher predecessors, but then the finale hits like a five-finger slap in the face from Will Smith and, suddenly, everybody could be, should be, and will be talking about “Stoker Hills'” gripping gambit.