“This is war. No, this is Sparta.”
Bringing back the comedic duo from Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) sounds like the greatest idea since sliced bread, enriching our lives with a hefty dose of nostalgia. So when Crispian Mills’ comedy-horror Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018) came along, presenting Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a contemporary take on comedy-horror, things seemed too good to be true. However, the British-American-Canadian production leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, despite its fast-paced story and satirical take on teenage eccentricity. So where does it all go wrong?
Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent off to Slaughterhouse, a prestigious boarding school for the elite of the future. With his Northern accent and a more relaxed approach to social interactions, he stands out like a sore thumb, attracting the curious eye of his crush, Clemsie (Hermione Corfield). His circumstances are only aggravated by his roommate Willoughby (Asa Butterfield), who’s scraping the barrel of the school’s social hierarchy. Both of them become the prime victims of their house’s head boy, Clegg (Tom Rhys Harries), whose military ruthlessness causes even their headmaster The Bat (Michael Sheen), and their supervisor Meredith (Simon Pegg) to tremble in their boots. When a strange explosion sets wild beasts free from the depths of the earth, Don and the rest will have to fight for survival.
The earlier connection between Slaughterhouse Rulez and Shaun of the Dead must be put to rest here, despite the filmmakers’ ardent efforts. The film’s creatures are more satirical than horrifying, with their poor rendering and complete detachment from the human element that is so magnetising in Edgar Wright’s work. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are understandably moved to the back, seeing as younger faces need to be promoted to connect to a younger audience.
However, there is something monumentally tragic about this manoeuvre. Though still somewhat comedic, the duo’s wit is stripped to a parody of adulthood seen through the eyes of disdainful teenagers. Presented as staggeringly useless in the face of danger and tragedy, they are eviscerated one by one, including the great Michael Sheen, whose brief acting injects some actual dread into the film’s otherwise dimmed comprehension of suspense.
The true success of all comedy-horror iterations rests in the thicky-woven fabric of irreproachable humour and clever editing. That’s what makes Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007) so timeless, for example. In Spaughterhouse Rulez, comedy rests more on the world within the film than the plot itself. The greatest joke seems to be the actual boarding school. We are presented with a spoof of the “houses” we all know from Hogwarts, with the protagonist’s quarters being dubbed “Sparta”. This seems appropriate, seeing as it’s run by Clegg, a posh, platinum-blonde autocrat sporting a long cane to beat misbehaving fellow students with.
Aside from the reference to the world of Harry Potter, the hostile environment of the school brings to mind Nick Moore’s Wild Child (2008). Sadly, it outshines this film in terms of its on the mark dialogue, which at least managed to capture the more eloquent of teenage interactions. Slaughterhouse Rulez seems to rely on the mania behind some of its characters instead, forgetting to develop a connection between the audience and the rest of the entourage. So when they start being devoured by the supernatural beasts, all the spurting fake blood in the world can’t make up for the passive disinterest we feel. Surprisingly, Clegg appears the most human of the bunch, and we end up sympathising with a slightly deranged antagonist.
While juggling the ever-elusive mystery of what might appeal to teenagers, and the film’s haphazard take on gory scenes, the script does address such issues as climate change and political unrest. However, seeing as adults are not the target audience, it’s hard to tell if these subliminal messages were meant to reach anyone in the end. The characters’ literal reference to E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey (2011) seems to confirm this, as blunt in the dialogue as the often reiterated presence of the “smokers’ corner”. There is no clearer indication of a film trying to be appeal to teenagers than the exhaustive mention of seeking a puff on a cigarette whenever stress overwhelms them. Cue endless eye-rolling.
All in all, Slaughterhouse Rulez is too chaotic to be engaging, and too blind to the talent it could have utilised to seem endearing. With its constant references to suicide and “the ecstasy of death”, it is entirely too predictable to offer a new take on any teenage story we’ve already seen. That being said, Tom Rhys Harries as a reincarnated Draco Malfoy is a pleasant surprise that washes away some of the acrid aftertaste the movie leaves behind.
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