The Cabin In The Classroom: Joseph Khan’s Detention (2011) – DVD review
¾ shrill ironic posturing; ¼ rabbit-hole-diving WTF-ery. If too much of it feels like being in detention, at least there’s a reason for being kept behind.
(Joseph Khan, 2011)
For a hefty portion of its slim run-time, Detention conspires to be one of the most annoying films in years: a horror-comedy so self-reflexive its hipster characters are probably mocking you for even watching them. And then, suddenly, the film explodes into a head-spinning demolition of genre, as if every idea its writers have ever had are being forced into a single film. It’s unexpected and unsettling, not least because it’s hard to tell whether the preceding awfulness was deliberate, or whether Detention’s barometer so totally fucked that nobody could tell the difference between good and bad.
I’m inclined towards the latter assessment. The opening sequence – about the murder of a vapid mean girl cliché – is portrayed with such inflated fourth-wall-smashing meta-irony, that it’s surely a parody? And yes, it is… except that the next scene features exactly the same incessant babbling of gnomic, over-written insults, seasick whip-pans and headache-inducing candy-colour scheme.
Director Joseph Khan is a hotshot music promo director (he did Britney’s Toxic) and this is a music promo guy’s kind of film, with wall-to-wall bubblegum rock and a serious case of attention deficit disorder: for a slasher movie, the slasher spends a weird amount of screen-time avoiding any slashing. The direction is frequently horrible, the performances brash and unconvincing and the tone often insufferably smug.
Khan is taking the piss out of the high school genre, but without the affection or finesse of, say, Easy A. Cultural references flow thick and fast – one character is obsessed with the early 1990s to the point of derangement, while a guy is going around killing everyone dressed in the costume of Cinderhella, protagonist of a fictional sub-Saw torture porn sensation – but this kind of stuff was old-hat in the 1990s. It’s as if Heathers, Clueless and Scream have been mixed together and spat out in an extenuated attack on self-referential cinema. Think of it as self-self-referential.
And then the rules of the game shift, and it gradually becomes clear that there are several more layers of self than even the early stages hinted at. By the time one character has changed (literally) all bets are off. No spoilers – it’s that kind of a film – but this is the kind of film where the masked psychotic killer turns out to be the most normal, boring guy at the party. There’s a purpose and a pay-off behind apparent non-sequiturs and a quite brilliant multi-firing Chekov’s Gun involving a photo of a girl giving a blowjob to a stuffed bear.
This kind of rabbit-hole filmmaking seems to be in vogue of late, and Detention shares intriguing kinship with The Cabin In The Woods in its ambition and willingness to jam its genre into a live socket, albeit with far less discipline or meaning. The charitable might say it’s the ultimate version of the theory that a high school movie can borrow any other genre – here, it borrows all of them – but Khan doesn’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the genre it is mocking. If The Cabin In The Woods turned old-school horror tropes inside out to suggest thrilling new directions, Detention is merely a sub-par teen movie that is salvaged by a delirious last act.