My, we’ve seen this one before. A handful of teens, delegates of every clique in the high school melting pot, find a prime piece of real estate to party and get themselves dead. Oversaturated by “Scream” and its offspring within the last decade, the concept has all the appeal at this point of a sweaty, naked cheerleader abandoned in the backseat of a car after a football squad love fest. Spent. Used up. Unattractive. But like a recent spate of slasher fare-with-substance – “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” and “Hatchet” – “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” is a healthy alternative to the sub-genre’s monotony. If Larry Clark, Sofia Coppola and Lucky McKee had a three-way, this is the brood they’d produce: A heady creation with a slavish adherence to slasher conventions and the ammunition to confidently knock ’em down as writer Jacob Forman and director Jonathan Levine see fit. Toss in a retro style, a few decent twists ‘n turns, indisputable sex appeal and startling realism and you’ve got a shockingly good – *gulp* – teen (!) horror film that transcends much of the adult-oriented dreck posturing as filmmaking these days.
Mandy Lane (Heard) is a young girl with a mature demeanor years ahead of her time. Which is probably the reason this enigmatic, nubile blondie has become the libidinal fascination of her male classmates. A catastrophic pool party plunge sets the tone from the onset, revealing what lengths these walking boners will go to to get her attention. The event ultimately drives a rift between Mandy and her geeky BFF Emmet as we find out when we pick up the narrative thread months later. Boys still love her, as does Emmet, it’s plainly evident, but what’s presently preoccupying her pretty little head is an invite to an expansive Texas ranch for a weekend party with cool kids Jake, Red, Bird, Chloe and Marlin.
Lane accepts, pleasing the wolves of this pack and what ensues is your usual mix of smack talk, truth or dare, cock-blocking, drugs and drinking…much to the chagrin of the alpha male ranch hand, Garth. With the scenario set in place, Foreman and Levine soon implement the stalk ‘n kill formula without any heavy-handed red herring hooey. Granted, there is some build-up to the mystery surrounding the killer; once exposed, however (and it’s pretty easy to figure out who it is), “Mandy Lane” evolves from an effective John Hughes-like spin on modern youth – replete with often hilarious banter – to a taught, violent reaction to the manipulation, isolation and class structure disseminating within the halls of high schools everywhere.
None of this would work, of course, without a robust and true cast; to Levine’s advantage he scores a coup with Amber Heard whose chaste turn as “the unattainable” and slightly wounded introvert steals the show. This is Mandy Lane’s film, after all, and if she’s not on camera, there’s someone talking about her or thinking about her. Levine’s camera worships Lane’s every nuance and curve, objectifying her and granting her a position of power and sexual authority at the same time. Heard is bewitching to watch and Lane is one of the most provocative final girls to come along in years.
The bleating, horny male herd play their parts accurately: There’s the slim bad boy (Jake) who charts his conquests across a map of the U.S., then the smooth-talkin’ player (Bird) and finally a frizzy-haired stoner (Red) who, I can only imagine, is only allowed to hang with the other two because of his access to narcotics. Lane’s only female competition comes from one coke-sniffin’ twig and an image-conscious slut. Everyone’s complexities derive from a real place and the cast’s naturalism works on every level.
Stylistically, Levine is grounded in the ’70s. The film’s developing threat and body count that bleeds into daylight terror embraces “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with loving arms. The soundtrack is a potent blend; not one of those arrogant, hashed-together mixes in an attempt to sell a CD that you want to use as a coaster. Contributions from Bedroom Walls, Nude and even “Our Lips are Sealed” by The GoGo’s evoke something nostalgic and care-free yet haunting – a deliberate contrast to the novel kills that are heinous and poised for future subtextual analysis. One lad takes a blade across the eyes in an outrageous and cringe-worthy obliteration of that “male gaze” mentioned in Carol J. Clover’s book “Men, Women and Chainsaws.”
“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” will win no supporters from those still wincing from the Virginia Tech massacre (the killer executes his prey wearing a simple hoodie, jeans and a backpack of weapons). It is often unsympathetic to current events, and it is unsafe, as all good horror films should be. Vicious and uncompromising when it wants to be, “Mandy Lane” is a tease who is just warming up as her ambiguous finale rolls credits.
A deft and ambitious debut from Levine and Forman who teach us there’s still life in the slasher genre yet…and it looks damn sexy.