The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Curse of Downers Grove

Teenagers and horror movies go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Adolescents love to watch the scary stuff, and many great works in the genre are centered around – or are metaphors for – the teen years. The Curse of Downers Grove has a concept that's as irresistible as it is full of promise. For a while, it seems as though the film might enter the pantheon of amazing teen-horror stories. And then it just settles into something routine.

The plot takes place in the town of Downers Grove. The local high school was built on an ancient burial ground, and now every year before graduation, a senior dies under mysteriously gruesome circumstances. Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) believes that the curse is a lot of baloney, until her life starts becoming weirdly chaotic. At a party, a jock named Chuck (Kevin Zegers) tries to rape her. She gouges his eye out in self-defense, effectively ruining his planned athletic career, much to the chagrin of his abusive father (Tom Arnold). Chuck and his knucklehead friends then begin stalking Chrissie and confronting everyone close to her, including burgeoning love interest Bobby (Lucas Till). All of this drama makes her wonder if, in fact, the curse is real and she may be its next victim.

The Curse of Downers Grove has a very sly and clever premise. This is, underneath the horror trappings, a story about how difficult adolescence can be. It is a time in life where many people feel like they really are cursed – by bullies, or unrequited love, or absentee parents, or whatever. In this case, the town's death curse is really just a witty metaphor for the travails of the teenage years. The film also draws a read-between-the-lines parallel between death and graduation. When you're seventeen or eighteen and faced with the prospect of leaving school and the friends you've had all your life, it can feel as though a part of you is dying. At that age, school is all you know; departing it for the great unknown is terrifying.

Bella Heathcote is very good as Chrissie, sympathetically capturing the confusion and frustration that teenagers often feel. She plays a blessedly smart character, rather than your typical panicked, screaming young woman in a horror flick. The actress, who also appeared in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, has a natural charisma that helps balance out the story's dark events. And they do get dark at times. To make a teen horror flick of this sort work, you really need a solid lead. Heathcote provides it, making you care about whether or not Chrissie is going to meet some hideous fate.

The basic problem with The Curse of Downers Grove is that it doesn't do enough with the compelling ideas it generates. What's here works, yet there was plenty of room to capitalize on the themes much more fully. Running a brief 78 minutes before the end credits kick in, the story would have packed a bigger punch with expansion of the idea that some unseen “curse” is following Chrissie around. There are a couple of moments where the character also addresses the concept of religion, specifically whether life's circumstances are coincidental or guided by some other force. That's a potentially deep idea, yet writer Bret Easton Ellis and director/co-writer Derick Martini seem reluctant to really tap into it. Instead, the story falls into basic tropes, with stalker Chuck repeatedly coming after Chrissie and her friends.

As such, The Curse of Downers Grove is a movie that keeps you watching with its clever hook, without ever delivering the kind of hardcore satisfaction the best teen-themed shockers (Heathers, Ginger Snaps) provide so well. There's a really cool idea in this picture. It just isn't explored to its fullest, and that ultimately proves limiting.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Curse of Downers Grove is unrated but contains language, attempted rape, and graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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