Low budget horror is a tough nut to crack. It is often attempted, as evidenced by the large number of cheaply produced shockers being churned out all the time, but rarely mastered. ROT: Reunion of Terror doesn't quite beat the odds since it has a few elements that are successful but as a whole it doesn't pass muster. Michael A. Hoffman and his crew have attempted to create a throwback to the 80s slasher film while giving it overtones of a psychological thriller. Despite being technically proficient in a number of critical areas and stretching their meager budget to the limit, their efforts are ultimately undermined by a soggy script and a confused tone that never really settles down.
The film opens shrouded in mystery as a hooded figure sits in a desolate cabin in the woods, cutting photographs out of a yearbook. As the photos get pinned to a bulletin board, the ominous tone of the film has been established. Moving on to campier territory we encounter two lesbian hikers who pitch a tent in the woods and promptly engage in some Skinemax style lovin' while whispering sweet nothings like "I don't want to get raped, unless it's by you". When they venture out looking for the lake in nothing but their skivvies, they have a nasty run in with the hooded figure from the cabin which leaves them quite deceased. After this detour, the film resumes the business of its main storyline. A group of people meet in a restaurant intending to celebrate their 10 year high school reunion at another friend's nearby cabin. This group consists of the usual stereotypes: Amanda (Monique Barajas) the bratty prom queen, B.J. (Mark Carducci) the jock, Michelle (Nori Jill Phillips) the uptight girl, Tyrone (L.J. Green) the token black guy and Jimmy (Christian Anderson) the goofball. Adding an element of mystery is the character of Celia (Hallie Bird), a slutty hitchhiker picked up by Jimmy along the way.
The fun starts, at least in theory, once the characters arrive in the woods by their friend Isaiah's (Alvie Baker) cabin. Right off the bat, they meet the creepy game warden (John Shumski) who can't stop eyeing the girls in the group. After eluding his lecherous advances, they make their way through the woods (really slowly) while taking potshots at each other and bickering constantly. Once they get to Isaiah's cabin, the mystery deepens because he is nowhere to be found. In his absence they decide to make themselves at home and wait inside his cabin. As they begin to relax, old insecurities come to light which of course leads to more bickering. Fortunately at this point, the film returns to its slasher tendencies as the hooded figure from the opening starts picking off the friends one by one. As the night goes on and the supply of classmates begins to dwindle, the film builds to a somewhat surprising conclusion.
If that synopsis sounds familiar, that may be because it is hugely derivative of every slasher film ever made. Beyond the obvious homage to Prom Night, ROT features plenty of tiny nods to other classic slashers. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it also invites the viewer to make a direct comparison between ROT and its predecessors. When placed under such an unforgiving microscope, ROT doesn't offer much novelty of its own. Perhaps recognizing this, Hoffman has chosen to create tonal shifts within the film that make it a much more slippery entity. This is a bold approach but ultimately an unsuccessful one because individual segments of the film just don't fit together in a cohesive whole. After raising my hopes with the campy opening, it's a real drag to spend most of the film watching the classmates display the full extent of their arrested development. Their petty squabbles and childish name-calling didn't give me the impression that they were folks who used to be friends in high school. They just came off as annoying brats who deserved to be dispatched with extreme prejudice. My utter boredom during this section of the film was abated when the killer got down to business but by then it was too little too late. The final shift in tone came during the killer's reveal but more on that in a bit.
If you haven't noticed yet, none of my issues with ROT have to do with constraints imposed on it by what must have been a tiny budget. In fact, I believe Hoffman and his crew used their limited resources to great effect. The cinematography and shot selection has a professional touch to it. The real shining star of this film happens to be the score by Ryan Copt and Joseph Butera. It evolves to fit the tone of the film, hauntingly melodic and menacingly industrial by turn. The gore effects are much better than what one might expect from a low budget venture such as this. They aren't always heavy on the red stuff but deliver a surprising amount of brutality. Looking past the bear traps and slashed throats, my favorite kill may be the classmate who gets their head bashed against a tree repeatedly. It is the very definition of simplicity but gives us a real insight into the killer's mindset, especially as the head bashing continues long after the victim has breathed their last. Speaking of the killer, I mentioned that their reveal constituted the final tonal shift in the film. To be fair, the identity of the killer isn't hard to guess but their motive and final move is definitely a bit unusual. It takes ROT into gritty revenge drama territory and gives us an ending that is the only true surprise of the entire film.