In Ryuhei Kitamura’s film Downrange, coming exclusively to Shudder on April 26th, a group of six college students find themselves stuck on the side of the road in a remote and isolated area after their vehicle gets a flat tire. An unseen and seemingly omnipotent sniper proceeds to kill them off one at a time as they struggle to shield themselves from his bullets and survive.
So many horror films start off with a group of college students traveling somewhere and getting into some kind of danger; and most of these movies are so bad that I almost always know I am not going to finish watching the film. Downrange is the fresh and surprising exception to that rule. In fact, Downrange breaks the rules of the standard horror formula in many ways, making a lasting impression that left me wanting to watch it again and again.
Writer Joey O’Bryan and director Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) pull off an amazing feat in getting to the action almost immediately while still allowing for enough character development to make you care what happens to the main characters. The movie begins with barely any glimpse into who the six college kids are and my initial reaction when the action started was, “What the hell are you doing? We don’t even know these kids yet. How are we supposed to care what happens to them?” O’Bryan and Kitamura do make you care about them as the story progresses. It helps that these aren’t the average horror movie college kids – they aren’t obnoxious, they don’t bicker at each other, try to have sex with each other, or say stupid shit. For once, a horror film gives us college kids that you can believe got into college because they are intelligent and thoughtful. Another thing about the “college-kids-on-a-road-trip” movies is that anyone with a degree of intelligence KNOWS there is no way these kids would have anything to do with each other in real life – there’s always a nerd or social outlier along for the ride with the cool kids, and always a token minority tagging along as well. Downrange has the same kind of mismatched group of kids but makes the effort to explain WHY they happen to be together without making any pretense that they are all friends.
The action in Downrange is INTENSE, and the kill scenes are extreme but realistic. Kitamura uses closeups to great effect, making the kill scenes more memorable by focusing on what is not seen so that when it is finally revealed, the gore has the ability to truly shock and repulse. Hats off to Matthias Schubert for his brilliant cinematography, from closeups to panoramic views, to 360-degree circle shots that made me a little dizzy. And a shout out to Kurt Ewell and crew for some incredible makeup work. I always wondered what human roadkill would look like, so, um, thank you?
The only thing that annoyed me about the characters was how obsessed they were with their cell phones and how dependent they were on them. Even this feels like it is a purposeful statement by the writer and director. As a horror fan, I’ve often wondered how differently the older “deranged killer” horror films would have played out if the protagonists had cell phones. Downrange answers the question with both positive and negative results. However, things we might view as symbolic of the younger generation’s shallowness become tools for survival in Downrange. In fact, a selfie stick is utilized in an ingenious way by three of the characters – all I’ll give away is that it wasn’t used to take a selfie.
The acting in Downrange is heads above the acting in most “college-kids-on-a-road-trip” horror films. Looking up the cast on IMDB, I found that most of them have a good amount of experience in films. The acting is of such quality that the main characters feel like real people, which made me really root for them to survive. I must confess that I found myself yelling at the screen during some of the more intense scenes, coaching the characters as if I could save them from imminent death, much like a football fan during the Super Bowl.
Downrange does a fantastic job of building suspense and evoking a sense of dread and fear, becoming as much a thriller as it is a gore fest. O’Bryan and Kitamura consistently go against the grain of horror film formula by killing off the typically “least-likely-to-die” characters early in the story and saving the “most-likely-to-die” characters for later. There is a wonderfully ironic twist on the “final girl” theme as well.
Another way Downrange plays against type is by not giving much information about the killer – who he is or why he is killing these people. And what a killer he is! He can shoot someone in the eye from what has to be at least a quarter mile away. He is unseen for most of the movie and always succeeds in his kills, even when taking on the police. He is the Michael Myers of snipers!
The best performances in Downrange are from Rod Hernandez as Todd (he is the dramatic center of the film), Stephanie Pearson as Keren (great actress who I hope to see more from), and Kelly Connaire as Jodi, who starts out coming across as a throwaway character but becomes essential to the story.
The way Downrange evolves throughout its ninety minutes is such an achievement! It starts with these six young college students alone on the road, being targeted by an unseen sniper and builds up to bigger action with more characters being brought in, mostly to give the sniper more people to kill so the main protagonists can survive a little longer. As I stated before, the action starts early in the film. The entire film is paced so brilliantly, dare I say perfectly, that there is never a dull moment. At the one-hour mark, Downrange kicks into high gear. The last fifteen minutes of the film are epic, with an ending that is both satisfactory and, depending on one’s sense of humor (mine is of the sick and twisted persuasion), darkly comical.
I can only hope that other horror writers and directors will watch this film and learn from it. This is how it should be done, folks! Like Revenge, another film I reviewed recently, Downrange is setting a new benchmark for horror films that I truly hope leads to a trend in horror film-making without over-saturating and diluting the genre with lower-quality knockoffs.
As an upcoming Shudder Exclusive film, Downrange is worth the $4.99 subscription fee alone. Seriously, if you don’t have Shudder, sign up now just so you can see these ninety minutes of horror film magnificence.
One of the site’s favorite indie horror folks, Graham Skipper, appeared on our podcast Grindhouse Messiah recently. He just happens to play a great, albeit small, role in Downrange.