With the (somewhat overblown) furor surrounding the non-release of trigger-happy horror movie The Hunt, it’s somewhat impressive that Red Letter Day is being seen at all. A kill-your-neighbor tale set in a reality not unlike our own, the feature debut from Canadian filmmaker Cameron Macgowan tackles societal divisions, racial tensions, and online oversharing all in the space of a zippy 75 minutes.
That the thing is so short means there isn’t a moment to waste. As such, Red Letter Day hits the ground running, quite literally speaking, as a wild-eyed, barefooted man legs it around his leafy suburban neighborhood plucking red envelopes from bulging mailboxes. Arriving at one particular door, he’s greeted at gunpoint and soon perishes in impressively gory fashion. After this intriguing introduction, the story stalls somewhat.
Our heroes are the Edwards family, recently-divorced mother Melanie (Dawn Van de Schoot), sulky alt kid Madison (Hailey Foss), and mouthy son Timothy (Kaeleb Zain Gartner). New recruits to the weirdly perfect community, they’re outcasts of sorts (even though there seem to be plenty of heavily tattooed folks living just around the corner) but Mom has made friends and Daughter has a (dodgy, older) boyfriend.
Somehow taking a bit too long to set everything up once the film actually introduces them, the Edwards receive their titular red letters, instructing each to murder a neighbor before he or she kills them first. Turns out, everybody has been matched up by a shadowy organization intent on capitalizing on the divisions that already exist to kick-start a revolution of sorts. So, it’s The Purge, but with clearer instructions and worse masks (the messy, papier mâché sort you made with a balloon as a kid).
Red Letter Day is a funny little film; not humorous, necessarily, though Macgowan’s baggy script does include a couple decent lines (“Do we need to have another discussion about consent?” is the clear winner), but its scrappyness is endearing to a certain extent. The older performers are considerably better, but the kids, both newcomers, do a solid job even if you can see the strain as they try their hardest in the film’s tougher moments.
The dynamic between the small Edwards family is finely drawn, whether it’s Madison (who, it must be noted, opens bananas very weirdly) being teased by her brother the same way many of our brothers would’ve teased us back in the day, or she and her mother battling it out in a cutesy video-game (a nice twist on a familiar trope). Their rapport never feels forced, powering the story through its more dubious revelations.
Madison’s boyfriend, who has a nerdy basement bedroom decked out with the most drool-worthy horror memorabilia that simply must belong either to the writer-director himself or a friend because it’s that impressive, is a poor man’s Jeremy Gardner but, refreshingly, his motivations remain vague until the film’s final act. Likewise, although the ruse itself is revealed relatively quickly, how deep it goes remains intriguingly unclear.
Much of Red Letter Day takes place in the brightness of the early morning, a brave choice that pays dividends once the red stuff starts flowing. The practical FX are spot on, frequently stomach-churning in their intensity, often papering over the cracks in the narrative. Elsewhere, online reactions to the escalating carnage are brilliantly done and almost too true to life. A joke made at the expense of groan-worthy commercials for seemingly ideal modern communities is equally sharp.
It’s a shame, then, that Jono Grant’s score is so bizarrely intrusive, almost as though Macgowan didn’t trust his own premise to sell itself on its own merits. There are no quiet moments in Red Letter Day, and Grant’s weirdly jaunty musical choices rob the film of any tension whatsoever. The score is so relentless, in fact, that it would make more sense if the music were coming out of character’s ever-present smartphones.
Still, the defining characteristic of Macgowan’s movie is scrappy and, for that reason, it’s difficult to completely hate it. The familial dynamic, which sells essentially the whole bloody thing, is so strong that many of the story’s obvious faults can be forgiven just by virtue of the fact we enjoy watching these people fight for their lives. Red Letter Day certainly isn’t a travesty, but the short run-time definitely works in its favor in more ways than one.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Cameron Macgowan
Writer(s): Cameron Macgowan
Stars: Dawn Van de Schoot, Hailey Foss, Kaeleb Zain Gartner, Roger Le Blanc
Release date: November 1, 2019 (limited), November 5, 2019 (Blu-ray and VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Awkward Silencio
Run Time: 75 minutes