It's kind of astonishing that no slasher flick before this had ever capitalized on our willingness to fork over to complete strangers -- people who carelessly ram into us, even -- information that puts us so much at risk. Give Hilary (Makenzie Vega) a break, though. She'd just had her heart torn to pieces, still reeling from sight of her scuzzy boyfriend (Harrison Sim) shoving his tongue down some cheerleader's throat. She's only had her driver's license for all of twenty seconds, and Hilary is just politely, thoughtfully trying step-by-step to do exactly what they taught her in Driver's Ed. Sure, the guy who ran into her (Bill Sage) seems a little off, and the many different colors of paint on his bumper sure make it look like this is a chronic problem of his, but he seems normal enough, he accepts full responsibility for the accident, and...whatever. Hilary's more terrified by how her parents are going to react to tearing up Mom's new Nissan Sentra. Besides, what's this fiftysomething-year-old guy gonna do? Drape himself from head to toe in leather, stalk Hilary when she's home alone, and try to stab her with a car door handle? Well...
So many horror flicks coming down the pike nowadays are throwbacks to the slashers of decades past. It's just that no matter which tack they take -- say, passing themselves off as a lost slasher from 1984 or going all The Purple Rose of Ki-Ki-Ki-Ma-Ma-Ma -- they're all blood-spattered Valentines to Friday the 13th or the glut of body count flicks that followed in its wake. Writer/director Mark Pavia (The Night Flier) rolls the clock back a little further than that, fascinated instead far more by John Carpenter's Halloween. Gone are the jittery handheld photography and fraction-of-a-second cuts; the deliberate editing here affords the film more a chance to breathe. The camera in Fender Bender smoothly glides, much as it does throughout so much of Carpenter's work, and its score sounds as if he himself were perched in front of a bank of synthesizers. Hell, Hilary's fender bender could just as easily taken place in Laurie Strode's stomping grounds of Haddonfield as well. The Driver, once he's dropped the façade of humanity, is a silent, unreadable force of nature, much the same as Michael Myers before him. There is no motive for his string of murders beyond a compulsion to kill. With some fifty minutes bridging the first and second deaths, Fender Bender is hardly just another body count flick. It's not relentlessly trying to one-up itself so that every murder is more dementedly imaginative and off-the-wall than the one before it. As swift and savage as these kills are, more unnerving still is how coldly calculated every aspect of The Driver's hunt is. This is a methodology he'd unleashed who knows how many dozens of times before, and, barring some kind of unforeseen miracle, he'll wreak this same sort of terror for many years still to come.
I appreciate that Fender Bender strips slasher conventions down to bare metal. An isolated home. Dead of night. A killer. A girl alone. The screenplay doesn't get mired in backstories or explanatory monologues. There's hardly a supporting cast to speak of; in fact, Hilary is the only character on-screen for something like half the movie. Despite those severe restrictions, Fender Bender does a tremendous job building tension leading up to The Driver's siege. Adding dramatic irony are echoes of the murder in the teaser. Hilary's not in a position to realize just what the jovial, if slightly off-kilter, text messages from the guy who hit her earlier in the day truly signify, but we know. An apologetic cake left on the battered family car and the discovery of photos snapped on Hilary's phone just minutes earlier when she was in the shower are disturbing, but for all she knows, it's just her psychotic ex trying to get back at her or maybe a couple of friends pulling yet another prank. The film is more enthralled by unease and suspense rather than gruesome makeup effects. While Fender Bender doesn't drench every square inch of the screen in blood or slather around armfuls of viscera, there's an inhuman brutality to the attacks that sets them apart from many vintage slashers. Although the film honors so many defining elements of slasher cinema, particularly the steeling of the Final Girl into a warrior, it's not afraid to buck convention either. There's also something to be said about Hilary's family being Hispanic; people of color are rarely the leads in these sorts of films.
As daring as the risks taken by Fender Bender can be, some of them ultimately work against the film. It's to Makenzie Vega's credit that she's able to shoulder so much of the movie on her own, but characters are so frequently defined by the actions they take and their interactions with those around them. Hilary is so isolated and left with little to do for the first hour that I kind of feel at arm's length from her. It's clever that Fender Bender introduces her at such a vulnerable moment, considering the far more nightmarish torment to which she'd soon be subjected and how she'll have to transform in order to survive, but it doesn't make her as easily embraced in the lead either. Laurie Strode and Nancy Thompson had me from word one; Hilary Diaz doesn't so much.
A few minutes after I scribbled down in my notes how impressed I was that Fender Bender shrugged off the usual slasher flick Red Shirts, in stroll Hilary's two best friends and an unwelcomed appearance by her drunken ex. After so many scenes with no one but Hilary in the frame, the cast all of a sudden quintuples, most of 'em are slaughtered in the space of ten minutes, and then it's down to just The Driver and The Final Girl. It seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity. As immediately likeable as Dre Davis and Kelsey Leos Montoya are, Hilary's friends don't have enough screentime to be really fleshed-out as characters. If they'd played a more meaningful role than supportive Facetiming early on, perhaps they could've brought further life to Hilary as well. The Driver doesn't make it a point to more explicitly terrify his latest victim beforehand as he does in the opening salvo on Jennifer (Cassidy Freeman), which mutes some of the potential tension. Hilary and her friends are immediately unnerved at the sight of him in costume, but it didn't hit me nearly as hard as I'd have liked, in part because I'm no fan of The Driver's S&M leather daddy get-up. Pavia explains in the extras how the outfit is an extension of his car -- leather, headlights, a grill -- but it looks kind of ridiculous to me. I'm sure that no one else reading this was a fan of Scud the Disposable Assassin, but if you see that mask and immediately think of Drywall, shoot me an email so we can be best friends. I also get that if Hilary had immediately called the cops -- after being hit or at any point while being stalked -- there wouldn't be a movie, but it's to the point that it almost defies belief. Even when Hilary stumbles onto photos of herself showering minutes earlier when she's supposed to be home alone, she doesn't seem that bothered.
Given its limited body count and the deliberately slow burn of its first hour, reactions to Fender Bender will unavoidably be divided. For my money...? I enjoyed Scream Factory's first original production well enough, though it won't be heralded as the sort of genre classic they've so often brought to Blu-ray over the past four years. It seems as if Fender Bender will hold up reasonably well to repeat viewing, particularly knowing so much more about The Driver's methodology the second time through, although I can't imagine it'll be anywhere nearly as compulsively rewatchable as the films that inspired it. Slasher fanatics will still likely find Fender Bender to be worth seeking out, especially those weaned on Carpenter's Halloween as I was. If you have an opportunity to rent this disc first or to check out the movie beforehand on Chiller, I'd suggest that before whipping out your credit card. Still Recommended, though.
Presented at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, this presentation of Fender Bender is about as sharp as the gleaming blade that The Driver uses to skewer his prey. The visuals really are exceptionally crisp and well-defined. The many sequences set under the light of day are bright and vividly saturated, most memorably the green foliage on a suburban street that can't help but bring back memories of Halloween. The second half of the film is set almost entirely at night, and the photography continues to look outstanding under limited light and is bolstered by pitch-perfect black levels. Scream Factory has packed this BD-50 disc to the gills, but they've taken care to ensure that this skillfully authored presentation of Fender Bender never suffers for it. What few gripes I'm left with are about as minor as they come. Some of the drone footage in the title sequence is a touch noisy, as if it wants just a bit more light to play with, and a curtain in Hilary's house very briefly exhibits a little moiré artifacting. I'm kind of honor-bound to nitpick -- part of the job description -- but other than those tiny, completely inconsequential notes, this presentation of Fender Bender stands on the brink of perfection.
Fender Bender is blasting two 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in stereo and the other in 5.1. Sometimes the most effective element of the film's sound design is what you're not hearing, using near-total silence to build tension and dread. Although there are some chugging guitars early on, the overwhelming majority of the score by Night Runner opts for atmospheric, Carpenter-esque synths. The music spreads deftly into every available channel, soaring into the surrounds and pounding at key moments from the LFE. The rear channels are also filled with howling desert winds and showcase some occasional pans across the soundscape, most memorably some 'roadkill' roaring from the front mains straight towards the audience. The meaty "whomp!" of collisions are punctuated nicely by the subwoofer, and given that Hilary is home alone during a violent storm, the same holds true for the accompanying claps of thunder. There are no technical flaws of any sort to speak of, and every last element in the mix is clean, clear, and nicely balanced.
Also included is a set of optional English (SDH) subtitles.
Fender Bender storms its way onto Blu-ray with a slipcover and reversible cover art. I'm not wild about the practically monochromatic default cover, but the painted art on the flipside is phenomenal and totally the sort of thing you could imagine splashed across an oversized clamshell VHS case back in the day. A digital copy code is also riding shotgun.
The Final Word
While so many other slasher throwbacks revel in a staggeringly high body count, barrel drums of splatter effects, and as much shameless nudity as they can get away with, Fender Bender instead pays homage to the film that in so many ways started it all: Halloween. Your mileage may vary as to whether its deliberate pace and modest body count are assets or misfires. As much as I've dug so much of the dead teenager revival crowd, I appreciate that Fender Bender breaks away from the rest of that pack. It's a solid, if unexceptional, tribute to Carpenter's seminal slasher. Better still is the special edition treatment that Scream Factory has lavished upon their first original production. Recommended.