Tom Holland has certainly proven himself a great director in the eyes of horror fans. One only has to reference Fright Night (1985) or Child’s Play (1988) to back up that claim. As a writer, his skills are superb (for example, 1983’s Psycho II). In this case, Rock, Paper, Scissors (also known as Rock Paper Dead) unfortunately does not stand up next to his previous successes. One could even say it’s not even playing the same game. Considering some strange plot coincidences, this film’s shortcomings are all the more puzzling.
A serial killer (Luke Macfarlane) places the blame of his actions on a nonliving family member. He is sentenced to a psychiatric facility until his doctor (Tatum O’Neal) releases him back into the world. As this seemingly reformed killer copes with his inner demons and newfound freedom, a sister out for revenge (Jennifer Titus) tries to ensure his fall back into insanity. She is backed up by another person out for a revenge (Michael Madsen) until she starts to see the good in the disturbed man. Does this plot sound at all familiar? Hint: Think of an earlier Tom Holland collaboration.
The answer is Psycho II. There is more than just a resemblance. With the exception of a couple gender swaps, all the main players are still present. Norman Bates is now Peter Harris (Macfarlane). Instead of “Mother,” Peter blames his actions on a supposed nonexistent twin brother. The sympathetic shrink is Tatum O’Neal. Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) has become Ashley (Titus), a woman out to seek revenge for her sister’s murder. To compound the issue, Ashley is a combination of Lila and Mary Loomis (Meg Tilly). Similar to Mary, she not only befriends this new Norman but seems to garner sympathy for him as well.
The nefarious plot in Psycho II to drive Norman back into insanity is still intact. This time, the volatile mother-daughter relationship is traded for a volatile pseudo father-daughter arrangement. Doyle Dechert (Madsen) is a detective that arrived too late to save Ashley’s sister and refuses to believe Peter Harris is rehabilitated. When Ashley’s actions appear to be more ambiguous (like Mary), Doyle alternates the Lila role as one more tenacious in his feelings towards the serial killer.
What I find to be puzzling about all these similarities is that, unlike the Psycho sequel, Holland did not have a hand in writing Rock, Paper, Scissors. He must have noticed that writers Kerry Fleming and Victor Miller were (poorly) regurgitating his brilliant ideas from the earlier flick. Which is kind of sad because they were better executed in Psycho II by director Richard Franklin. To be fair, the ultimate resolution is very different from the (mostly) well-received Psycho sequel. Where the 1983 feature developed both a claustrophobic and introspective terror, Rock, Paper, Scissors lays everything right out on the table.
There are certainly unsettling moments in Rock, Paper, Scissors and to Holland’s credit, one classic scare is pulled off with seasoned perfection. Even some interesting ideas are presented to the audience to ponder. Unfortunately, similar to 1986’s Psycho III, the audience never figures out with whom to identify. Without one character to tether themselves to, the viewer is given only mild interest to anyone in danger. There are a series of twists to keep the viewer engaged; however, even if mildly believable, the final twist becomes an exercise in confusion. By this time, the reveal only further waters down what little (if any) emotional connection the audience had to the characters.
Luke Macfarlane does a suitable job as Peter Harris. He is certainly not Anthony Hopkins, but about a third of the way into the film, he settles into the role. His gravelly “villain” voice takes getting used to but overall it works. He even lends a sort of charisma to the character. As Ashley, Jennifer Titus is believable as a woman that has had to toughen up over the years. Unfortunately, in one scene she is forced to deliver some truly traumatic dialogue that comes out almost comical. The pacing is off and horrifying to watch. Mainly, because these terrible things happen every day to young women. Maybe the writers were desperate to make Ashley more vulnerable or to appear that she has overcome incredible odds. Either way, of great detriment to the overall film, the dialogue in this scene and in many others is incredibly clumsy.
Even revered character actor Michael Madsen appears to be unsure of the dialogue he is expected to recite. Madsen’s Doyle believes in his convictions; however, the actor comes across reluctant to back up his character. As in, if he just says everything quickly then it will be over soon. Tatum O’Neal is more willing to believe in her character Dr. Bauer. O’Neal’s Bauer is confident in her ability to cure, but she takes action at the first sign of something wrong. Still, in tripping over itself, the film’s final twist only reveals that all these so-called intelligent characters were actually idiotic.
Rock, Paper, Scissors shifts from interestingly derivative to ultimately disappointing. Taking many cues from Holland’s earlier involvement in Psycho II, the script eventually deviates from what made the 1983 feature work so well. In both films, the truth is surprising. Psycho II, however, plays with audience expectations. Rock, Paper, Scissors decides to be different by going with the obvious. What everyone assumes is a lie actually turns out to be the truth. This reveal, in combination with the rest of the movie’s awkward dialogue just does not hold up. In these kinds of films, the truth should vindicate at least one character. Instead, the sympathy for every single character completely disappears.
So, why would Holland want to retread the plot of someone else’s interpretation of his Psycho II? Again, the similarities are just too overwhelming to overlook. Perhaps, Holland had a desire to see how he would have directed his earlier written work. In addition to some tense moments, he does achieve one classic scare in Rock, Paper, Scissors. Unfortunately, in the places where these writers change his original ideas, the film tends to fall apart. I have a high respect for Tom Holland’s work. Therefore, I was disappointed to have to report that this film turned out the way it did. The game this film is named after is always a gamble, and, in the end, the gamble did not pay off.
Rock, Paper, Scissors is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Wicked Rating: 5/10
Director: Tom Holland
Written by: Kerry Fleming and Victor Miller
Stars: Luke Macfarlane, Jennifer Titus, Michael Madsen, Tatum O’Neal
Release Date: July 23, 2019 (Blu-ray/DVD) October 21, 2017 (Nightmares Film Festival)
Studio/Production Company: Fuel 1, RPD Entertainment
Length: 84 minutes
Sub-genre: Serial Killer, Psychological Thriller