Girl Meets Context: It’s Indie Horror Month, where we cover some of the best original and independent horror movies to be released in the last few years. Detention is the second feature film by director Joseph Kahn (his debut was the Ice Cube-starring motorbike racing flick Torque). Kahn is mostly known as a music video director, spending most of the 1990s shooting videos for artists like Die Krupps, Das EFX, Faith No More, Foxy Brown and many others. Detention was mostly financed by Kahn as a passion project. It’s a high-speed meta-horror satire that spoofs and/or references everything from John Hughes teen dramedies (like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink) to teen slashers (Scream, Prom Night) to body horror (Cronenberg’s version of The Fly) to ’80s action films (Road House, Under Siege). The movie’s ostensible plot follows jaded teen feminist/vegan Riley (Shanley Caswell) as she dodges a serial killer and pines after a feckless slacker named Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) who is now dating her former best friend Ione (scene-stealer Spencer Locke). The plot zigs and zags between genres and ideas, involving time travel, body swapping, alien invasion and many other disparate elements. Praised by some, derided by others, only time will tell if Detention will live on as the cult object it clearly yearns to be or will fade into true obscurity. Kristine and I sat down to process the movie’s frenetic pace and many references. If you haven’t seen Detention please be forewarned that our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: Sean, what do you think about when you think about 1992?
Sean: Are you really asking me that?
Kristine: Yes. You were… living in an apartment in Providence?
Sean: Let’s see… I was how old then?
Sean: No, then I was dropping out of high school in central Connecticut and working at the Papa Gino’s in the Manchester Parkade…
Kristine: Papa Gino’s?????
Sean: …and wearing zip-up combat boots with huge pink triangles painted on them (not a lie).
Kristine: I love this!
Sean: And smoking a ton of pot and listening to the B-52′s and the Pixies on repeat forever.
Kristine: No boys, right?
Sean: Um…. I don’t think so. It was a dark time. Like, pitch black dark.
Kristine: I know.
Sean: What about you?
Kristine: Okay, let’s see. If it was 1992 spring, I was a sophomore, going to D.C. for Dischord band shows, hanging out with my senior friends Niko and Erika, and raising my political consciousness. If it was 1992 fall, I was sitting on the curb watching skater boys, political consciousness abandoned, and starting to drink/do light drugs.
Sean: Such a time.
Kristine: Such a time.
Sean: So did Detention make you nostalgic for 1992 at all?
Kristine: You know, sure, a bit. We are represented by the adults in this movie and that was weird.
Sean: It was weird, compounded even more by the lead adult being played by Dane Cook.
Kristine: Though a lot of Sloan/Ione’s references are so not 1992. But when Riley goes back in the time machine, the school halls actually did feel wicked 1992. I was glad it showed flower power hip-hop culture (De La Soul, Jungle Bros, Monie Love, etc.) and not just grunge bullshit.
Sean: Yes, lots of diverse ‘90s signifiers were present. I love that the first girl Riley sees is a white chick wearing dreads, burgundy Doc Martins, and a Fishbone t-shirt.
Kristine: YES. I remember this fairly popular alterna-guy coming to school with dreads and being shunned and mocked because word got out he went to a salon to get dreads, like, crafted, instead of it happening organically (he was a white guy, by the way). I think Spencer Locke as Ione/Sloan is a hoot. “A hoot.” See, I am an old lady, like this movie says. I like Spencer Locke way better than Shanley Caswell, the girl who plays Riley. Spencer Locke = hilarious.
Sean: Spencer Locke kills it in this movie
Kristine: So great, right?
Sean: She is fucking awesome.
Kristine: She really is a force. She kept me laughing and is just overall way better than Caswell’s Riley.
Sean: Riley is good and fine and cute…
Kristine: Meh. I wasn’t feeling her.
Sean: …but Ione/Sloan steals the movie.
Kristine: Totally. So, do you like this movie?
Sean: I do!
Kristine: Because I have weird feelings.
Sean: It is a serious situation but yes, I like it. I would understand someone hating it, because it is trying so hard and suffers from serious A.D.D. This is not a movie for everyone. But I am very fond of a couple of the big setpieces, which we can get to later.
Kristine: Here is my basic feeling – I don’t like this movie. There were a ton of things in it that DID please me and make me laugh, but I still don’t like it and I would not recommend it. Why is that? Help me.
Sean: Well, it is on fucking steroids, right?
Sean: And it is so self-aware. It is everything Diablo Cody gets accused of times 1,000. This movie makes Juno look restrained and minimalist.
Kristine: Yes, true that. The opening sequence and the title sequence turned me cold.
Sean: I actually hate the first 20 minutes, especially the introduction hosted by Taylor Fisher. The Hoobastank references, the popping of pills called Herpexxx, the yelling of “Eat cock!”, the voice message left by Don Waters (Just…. no), the self-aware montage that includes Ke$ha references and casual bulimia. The overall tone of “Teenage girls, they’re such cunts…. Sorry ‘bout it!” was not my favorite.
Kristine: Yeah, I hated it, too.
Sean: Though I did kind of crack up at the texting between Taylor and Cinderhella, complete with robotic voiceover (“biiitch going to kill uuuu”). That was funny. But overall, the movie seems a bit too into the idea that teenage GIRLS are beyond insipid.
Kristine: Sean. “Josh Hutcherson, executive producer.” How can that be?
Sean: Hahahah! I cannot crack that one.
Kristine: When I saw that, I was like… I can’t do this.
Sean: I saw that too and thought it was weird.
Kristine: So weird.
Sean: Should I talk about what I liked about Detention first? Then we can get to the dumbness, of which there is a lot?
Kristine: Yes, though I am dying to give my list of things I liked. They aren’t themes or concepts, just scenes/lines/moments.
Sean: Do you want to go first?
Kristine: Yes, because mine are dumb and fast.
Sean: Do it.
Kristine: “Like Queen Latifah said, ‘Ladies First!’”
Kristine: Okay, Cinderhella. That name made me laugh every single time. I don’t know why, but it is funny. Also the character of Gord, the bizarre Canadian debate prodigy. Gord was funny. Gord being a vegetable is funny.
Sean: Gord felt like a real entity from my high school past.
Kristine: I would have had a secret gross crush on Gord, in real life. Again, Spencer Locke’s everything. Every time she was on screen, but especially when she asks 1992-era Verge to prom.
Sean: That is one of mine! Sloan weeping and asking Verge to prom was hilarious.
Kristine: That scene was so fucking funny! It’s so short but she is perfect. Seriously, comic genius. Who is this girl?
Sean: She is great. She was on Cougar Town for a while and killed it there too. But get this. She is probably best known to horror fans for her recurring role in… the Resident Evil franchise!
Kristine: That makes me very unhappy. I can’t imagine that her comic skills are being even remotely utilized in those joyless films! Was she in the one that we watched? If so, she made zero impact on me.
Sean: No. She’s in a couple of the later sequels.
Kristine: I guess my reaction to that news is, I’m glad she’s making that dolla.
Sean: And get this. In the Resident Evil films she’s in she plays opposite….
Kristine: Oh god.
Sean: …Ali Larter (a.k.a. Clear Rivers)!
Kristine: Shut your lying mouth.
Sean: Ali Larter is like, one of the major co-stars of the later Resident Evil movies.
Kristine: Christ. The world is a funny place.
Sean: Wanna watch all the sequels now?
Kristine: Nope. Okay, back to Detention. Riley and Sander’s violent, drunken humpty dance at the party? I was dumbstruck. Riley barfing on Billy Nolan after the fight? Nightmare. “The Lonely Ballad of Billy Nolan” section is where the movie started winning me back. But it lost me again with the time travel stuff.
Sean: The Billy Nolan fly-juice stuff was good.
Kristine: That’s all I got for now. So how can I love all these things and not like this movie?
Sean: I don’t know, but I understand. I’ll just say that my favorite setpiece in the movie, and the thing that really won me over, was the montage of Elliot Fink’s 19-year-long detention and all the music/style changes in the montage. I really, really thought that was funny and great. In 2008 the soundtrack is “When I Grow Up” by the Pussycat Dolls and everyone’s wearing Ed Hardy; in 2005 it’s The Bravery’s “An Honest Mistake” and everyone’s dressed in emo/goth trappings (á la The Faint, the Killers, etc.) – my favorite detail is the guy in the black top hat and sunglasses; in 2003 50 Cent’s “In da Club” is playing and everyone’s wearing Von Dutch trucker caps; in 1998 it’s the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and the kids are in Wu-Tang tees, upside-down sideways sun visors, and bandana headbands, one girl is dressed in full Oops!… I Did It Again drag; then finally it’s 1994 and Hole’s “Violet” is blaring and everyone’s in torn denim, flannel and lots of scarves. My favorite thing about this movie, actually, is how acutely it pays attention to the ways in which styles and trends work. Both how dumb/silly they are but also how fun they are.
Kristine: I will concur that the Elliott Fink sequence was good. Very clever.
Sean: Just that sequence’s riff on how what’s on the charts reflects style – the Von Dutch hats in 2003 really had me rolling. It makes a really compelling argument with no dialogue and no editorializing about the mindlessness of pop culture, the way in which high school (but also, I’d argue, the culture-at-large) is predicated on conformity, but also how quickly these cultural expressions of identity move now. Whereas earlier in the 20th century the processes of style took about a decade or so to really shift and change, the speed of culture has increased to the point that every few years a new aesthetic rears its head and shifts collective identity and expression in a new direction.
Sean: The movie is very astute about the way style/trends work (and maybe it is ONLY astute about that). Remember when Taylor Fisher is choosing from the array of clothes that serve as signifiers of the 1990s (multi-colored leopard-print hoodie, Greeves t-shirt, Abercrombie flannel, denim-and-tartan halter top, pink skinny jeans with white belt)? Or that 1992 montage of girl-bangs (feathered to the side, barrette-plus-massive-swoop, disheveled, cut straight across, side-ponytail)? This movie has a total point of view about style and fashion trends. It doesn’t trivialize it, even as it lampoons it. I have a feeling that’s what a lot of horror movie boyz hate about this movie, but I love it.
Kristine: Yes, those style montages made me happy, too. They’re not lazy or slapdash, but carefully constructed.
Sean: I think this is a very “metrosexual” movie, if you catch my drift. Straight boys who dismiss the importance of style need not apply.
Kristine: I hear you. But I think I might hate what the “message” of Detention is. Or the critique the movie is making, if it does in fact make a critique.
Sean: What is the “message” that you hate?
Kristine: Well, I don’t know if this even IS the message of the movie because I’m not sure it has one… But in general I am tired of the idea that today’s youths have no sincere, authentic culture of their own, that it’s all pastiche and winking references, and that this is the result of short attention spans, A.D.D., the Internet, texting, iPhones, video games, etc. I am over that idea and I reject it.
Sean: You don’t think we live in the age of pastiche?
Kristine: I think we do, but I think we have for many generations. I think it’s mean to deny today’s youths their own culture. There has to be something organic to each generation or else it is too depressing.
Sean: Well, I do agree that the movie seems to side with the idea that it’s okay to fetishize the pop culture of past decades, the way Riley and Ione fetishize the early 1990s. Remember when Ione in the past is like, “How hard is it to be cool in 1992?!” and when Riley first arrives and meets the obnoxious vegan feminist, she’s like, “I am so home.” During those parts I was like, “Um, 1992 sucked just as bad as any other year to be in high school.”
Kristine: Right, but on the flip side, do you think it’s slightly obnoxious of this director (who is a member of our generation) to basically make a movie that says, “My youth rules, your youth is soulless”?
Sean: I get what you mean, but I’m not sure I agree Joseph Kahn’s making that argument. Isn’t that the point of the 19-year-long detention montage? To lay bare the way that style/trends in pop work? Remember that montage ends with “Violet” by Hole, so he’s lampooning his own peer group as well as those of the 21st century.
Kristine: I really am just spitballing here because I’m trying to figure out what I found so depressing and soulless about this movie.
Sean: It depressed you?
Kristine: Kind of, and I am not sure why.
Sean: Is it possible that your reaction is just that this movie forces us to realize we’re almost 40?
Kristine: Ha! No, I don’t think so. That does totally trip me out, but it doesn’t depress me. Maybe Detention irks me because it adds up to nothing?
Sean: I would agree with the claim that this movie doesn’t add up to much. In fact, that’s the main problem with it, from my point of view. I don’t think it actually has any coherent worldview or argument to make.
Kristine: I was expecting it to be more of a love letter to horror movies, and I didn’t really feel that. It does make lots of references to horror, but they are diluted by all the other references.
Sean: It’s like a love letter to… the zeitgeist. Of which horror movies are a part.
Kristine: Sure, I see that. But it’s weird how it kind of wants to be a valentine to horror films of yore, but then it doesn’t fully commit. Did you like the Cinderhella stuff, by the way?
Sean: Well, that’s the other setpiece I really loved. I loved the movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie sequence when they are consulting the Cinderhella movie for clues about how to survive a slasher. I thought it was a great parody of the “Scream sensibility” and also a fun way to lampoon the aesthetics and tropes of slasher franchises. So in Detention they’re watching Cinderhella III: Blood Ball, wherein the characters are watching Slashing Beauty 4, wherein the characters are watching Beauty Beast 5, which consists of Ron Jeremy in pasties, elbow-length gloves, a corset and a tiara. I loved that stuff – and I thought the Cinderhella stuff overall was funny and a great vehicle to mock the slasher genre, especially the Saw-like traps/devices in the background.
Kristine: Plus Cinderhella was actually pretty scary looking.
Sean: I actually thought she was meant to be a Marilyn Manson clone.
Kristine: Oh, I didn’t pick up on that but, yeah, they’re cut from the same aesthetic cloth, for sure. I liked the movies-within-movies stuff just fine, but I thought it could have been done better. Look, I am not a dummy. I get that the insane mass of references and frenetic momentum is the point, but just because it is on purpose doesn’t mean it is good. I was annoyed that I wasn’t given the chance to really delve into anything and enjoy it, which is why all my “likes” about this movie are just little scenes. If the most moving experience you have during a movie is a 45-second flashback to the hallways of a 1992 high school, that’s a problem (for me, anyway).
Sean: I get it.
Kristine: Tell me more of what you liked.
Sean: “TV hand! TV hand!” made me laugh very hard.
Kristine: Yes, that was funny. This movie does render those little bits of absurdism really well.
Sean: I loved the “Planet Starclaw” bit, with the bear being kidnapped by aliens.
Kristine: Heh, yes.
Sean: And lastly, the avatars of Swayze and Seagal behind Clapton and Sander during the big fight scene at the end. I dug that.
Kristine: That was fun. I loved, “Your fighting style is soooo obnoxious.” I have one last random line that made me laugh – when the Sigur Rós iPod mugger calls Riley “Heather Mills,” because she’s limping along with her gigantic leg cast. That non-hipster hipster thug might have been the most soulful thing in the movie! “Give me your iPod, salad eater! It’s a fucking Shuffle?!” I did like him, with his insistence that he wasn’t hip in the least. “I listen to Aerosmith.” That whole bit worked for me.
Sean: Oh, I liked that too. What I didn’t like? Anything having to do with Josh Hutcherson.
Kristine: Yeah, he really sucks the energy out of the movie. He is the anti-Spencer Locke.
Sean: I thought the way the movie treated the character of Riley was actually really weird and bizarre. Riley and Clapton have no chemistry at all and he seems weirdly repulsed by her, not attracted. And like, our introduction to her is where she wakes up in bed and her hand is covered in red gunk that you think is like… period blood? But then it turns out to be ketchup because she passed out gorging on ketchup and fries? Those moments felt like they thought they were making her into a loveable Liz Lemon-esque schlub, but they failed totally.
Kristine: I agree!
Sean: Like, when Riley tags along on Clapton’s date with Ione? It was bizarro.
Kristine: I didn’t find Riley particularly compelling myself, but the movie had a weird way of handling her character. The boob scene at the party made me feel weird.
Sean: So weird. I thought the movie was like, overall grossed out by her vagina and her body and kept insisting that she was a fat wildebeest when she is obviously not.
Kristine: She is definitely stripped of all dignity in this movie, and not, as you said, in a charming Liz Lemon way. And even Liz Lemon is problematic sometimes.
Sean: Yeah. I was fine with them lampooning Riley’s feminism and her veganism. That was not the problem – those things are totally ripe for satire and I’m all for it. My problem was with how the movie treated her vis-à-vis the Clapton character.
Sean: Just like she was portrayed as some beastly, desperate Wookiee!
Kristine: Oh, yes, absolutely. This is all part of why, even though it seems like Detention is this fluffy confection, I think it is really mean-spirited.
Sean: I think this movie is like, “Skinny blondie Sloan/Iones are hot; dark beastly feminists have slimy vaginas.”
Sean: And her bizarre attempted suicide sequence? Just, no. I get the Heathers reference, movie, but still…. No.
Kristine: Clapton is worshipped only because he’s “a good guy”. That’s all he needs to be to get women and approval.
Sean: Yeah and he’s insipid and dumb and not cute. And Sander, the skinny nerdlinger, is the psycho who wants to date rape you and then become a burned transgendered killer. Me no likey. The jock bully is given this sympathetic fly-fluid subplot, and the evil nerd is like, lampooned and mocked and hated. This movie is Republican.
Kristine: Don’t forget the movie puts Riley in that outfit for 80% of the film. Speaking of – Angela Chase? No! Total fail. More like little sister Danielle Chase mixed with Clarissa Explains it All.
Sean: Now I am getting mad and indignant.
Kristine: Sean, I am telling you, I think this director/writer is kind of a total asshole.
Sean: So, what do you rate this?
Kristine: I am tempted to say “This movie is hate speech” but that is too harsh. I rate it… Quantity over quality = an utter dilution of soul.
Sean: I think my ratings are: I would have loved this movie in high school and I remember this as being good but….
Kristine: So, wait, when you originally saw Detention you dug it?
Sean: Yes, I said! I still like things about it, but now I’m mad at it.
Kristine: Sean, it’s the first movie in Indie Month that I have disliked!
Sean: I am a little sad that I chose it. I feel like a bad programmer.
Kristine: Don’t be. Stop that! I can see why it is “horror movie homework.”
Sean: I just felt like, in comparison to the onslaught of direct-to-DVD Wrong Turn sequels and fucking found footage movies of the current moment, Detention felt really unique and worthy of discussion. But I’ll tell you what this movie made me realize: How amazing and subversive Heathers was and still is.
Kristine: Oh, say more about that.
Sean: Just that Heathers actually is this ribald and cynical yawp of rage at “the system,” but it’s also deeply human and humane.
Kristine: Yes. Yes, exactly. In this movie Martha Dumptruck would be an un-sympathetic psychopath, right?
Kristine: No bueno.
Sean: And in Heathers, Veronica is this amazing and complex heroine, and the movie actually has something to say about exploitation and conformity.
Kristine: Detention ends with everyone singing and dancing to “MMMBop.” And we’re asked to believe that our “heroine” is so lucky to be with doltish Clapton.
Sean: Heathers also is sort of feminist, and only presents the murders of the date-rapey jocks as straight black satire. Heather Chandler’s death is sort of sad and tragic, even though she’s a bitch.
Kristine: Heathers is completely feminist!! “Corn Nuts.” We get pathos from Heather Chandler when she spits water at her reflection in the frat house mirror after going down on the rape jock.
Sean: We should have just revisited Heathers. The ending of this movie – utter annihilation – shows that its just Gregg Araki with more misanthropy and less gay sex.
Kristine: Ha! This movie has a queer sensibility only about style, not at all in its content. Agreed?
Sean: Agreed, though it took my talk with you to see it.
Kristine: Wow, yay! Usually you reveal truths to me. That makes me happy.
Sean: Girl, you is Obi-Wan. But we love Spencer Locke.
Kristine: We love Spencer Locke. The movie was worth it for her. Maybe.
The Girl’s Rating: Quantity over quality = an utter dilution of soul.
The Freak’s Rating: I would have loved this movie in high school AND I remember this as being good but….