To people outside of Canada, and even those within its borders, a planned community in Calgary, awash in daylight, would seem to be a pretty unlikely setting for a horror film. But in Cameron McGowan’s debut feature Red Letter Day, there’s mayhem on the menu as that exact setting turns into a playground for murderous suburbanites. Falling somewhere between The Purge and Battle Royale in tone, McGowan ratchets up the paranoia, big laughs, and practical gore effects to create a wild and unique horror experience.
Recent divorcee Melanie Edwards (Dawn Van de Schoot) lives with her two teenage kids, Timothy (Kaeleb Zain Gartner ) and Madison (Hailey Foss ), in the sunny suburb of Aspen Ridge, Alberta. Soon after moving in, mysterious red letters begin to appear in everyone’s mailboxes, instructing each recipient to murder someone else in the community. The targets have been selected by analyzing each person’s social media and matching them with a person with opposing religious or political beliefs, and the hunt begins. Melanie and the kids laugh off the letters at first, but when Melanie’s target ends up being someone very close to her, the family engages in a race to save themselves.
With Red Letter Day, McGowan has tapped into both the sort of passive-aggressive way that folks in the suburbs seem to interact and the bottled-up rage that seems to fester when their frustrations – major or minor – are suppressed for the sake of politeness. There’s definitely an undercurrent of social commentary here about how anger manifests in a modern setting, where our neighbours might be physically right next door, but everyone’s detached from one another – sending menace through red letters in the mail or through troll comments on social media. It’s not heavy-handed and is a little thin in parts, but I respect the effort to elevate Red Letter Day past a typical slasher. I can say with some confidence that it does more with its concept than The Purge did in the first movie in that franchise.
I can’t say that Red Letter Day’s acting is great, or even charitably good in most scenes. Dialogue between characters largely seems stilted and unnatural, but this is more than mitigated by the strength of the script and the great physical action and practical effects, and everything works when the whole package is wrapped up as a homage to 80’s VHS classics. Characters act and react naturally to the tension here, and I have to say that Melanie as a protagonist – a fiercely protective mother that kicks ass for nearly the whole running time of the movie, but is also quick to snap at her kids to behave – is a breath of fresh air. Similarly, the relationship between Timothy and Madison feels genuine and heartfelt even when they’re snapping at each other (or have bones protruding through their skin). The violence on display in Red Letter Day is incredibly over-the-top and hits just the right notes of being both gross and absurdly hilarious. Hammers, meat tenderizers, and even a roast chicken are used to dispatch folks in the film, which I think is pretty emblematic of the way this movie wants to lean.
Between Zach Gayne’s Homewrecker and Red Letter Day, I’m enjoying that Canadian passive-aggressive horror might be having a moment. Spreading a layer of uniquely Canuckian politeness over the sort of gruesome kills you might expect from Ari Aster or Eli Roth is a delicious recipe, and I’ll gladly devour any that comes my way, even if it means a bloody roast chicken.
Red Letter Day opened in select cinemas on Nov. 1st and will land on Blu-Ray and VOD on Nov. 5th from Epic Pictures and DREAD. The Blu-ray release of Red Letter Day features audio commentary with the director, executive producer and cinematographer, as well as the special exclusive featurettes Suburban Skirmish – The Making of Red Letter Day and Her Eyes – My Dance Through the Movies with actor Tiffany Helm.