Slasher films are perhaps one of horror’s most hallowed subgenres. Since they first rose to mainstream popularity in the 1980s, we’ve seen decades worth of attempts from filmmakers trying to bring masked serial killers back to prominence. Massacre Academy is the newest entry to that long and luxurious laundry list, but it stands up on its own where many others have fallen. So, sharpen your pencils, put down your hall pass, and let’s take a class on what makes this slasher so special.
Massacre Academy is written and directed by Mark Cantu (Night Zero 2018). It stars Jess Uhler (The Boonies 2021), Sierra Mitchell in her feature film debut, and Brian Ceponis (Luminous Dreams 2021). This film tells the tale of Kris McNeil, the survivor of a tragic string of murders by Henry Lee Palmer, a psychotic school janitor. With Palmer now dead, this infamous town starts to see a blood trail left by a copycat killer named Carnie. Right away, you can tell that the script was written with more care and detail than most of your standard slashers. This film may be set in the 80s and the killer may be donning a clown mask, but you can’t be too quick to toss this one in among the barrage of bargain bin gorefests from your local dollar store. It provides much, much more.
The characters are all linked due to their knowledge of the previous Palmer murders. So we get a psychological view of the mindset and coping skills of our protagonists. These characters have a ton of unique bonds and backstories that are fleshed out extremely well. So when something happens to one of them, we don’t just feel bad for that character, we feel empathy for all of the characters around them. This is quite an ensemble cast, but they aren’t just bodies for Carnie to slaughter. They all have meat on the bone and reasons to make the audience care about them.
The acting is strong here from A to Z. You have caricatures, comic relief, and strong survivors. But while there’s someone for everyone to relate to, the use of tropes or comedy never hurts the tension. It’s self-aware without slapping you in the face with its cleverness. Jess Uhler is at the epicenter of this well-acted affair, and her portrayal of McNeil makes her a final girl with grit that you can’t help but cheer for. Our killer character also has a strength and charm that rivals their malevolent mind. The cast is incredibly youthful, but they bring a sense of tough female Avengers to their work that young girls should look up to.
Massacre Academy is clearly made as a love letter to hardcore horror fans. We get appearances from genre staples like Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp 1983 – read our retro review here), Dave Sheridan (Camp Twilight 2020), and Shawn C. Phillips (Found Footage Of Fear 2020). We get aspects of a whodunit (ala Scream 1996) mixed with a motivated group of survivalists (ala Mother’s Day 1980). The audience will quickly find themselves in the shoes of those survivalists, since every character is made to feel multi-dimensional and important. Every beat in this film is done with purpose. They build while they brutalize, so that the 85 minute runtime never feels like it truly sets in.
The technical aspects of the film hold up just as well as the story. The practical effects will make the gorehounds proud, especially evident in a classic party scene. The rock soundtrack fits the tone of the film perfectly. The lighting vibrates at a ten for most of the movie, but never feels forced or frivolous. The pacing is very quick throughout, and Cantu uses a more realistic sense of horror instead of relying simply on jump scares.
All in all, Massacre Academy will likely make a lot of people’s lists as a standout indie gem of 2021. Being a character-driven slasher sets it apart from most modern day attempts. It holds quite a relevance and realism in its substories that will have you thirsting for more when the credits roll. If you come for the cameos and blood, you’ll find yourself staying for the bonds and charm of the legion of ladies. Massacre Academy is hitting the festival circuit soon, so if you have the chance, a viewing is highly recommended.