Phil Wonfornine learns some valuable lessons during Detention
When the director of a movie takes his onscreen credit with his name written in vomit, it’s fair to say that he is not looking to become his generation’s answer to David Lean anytime soon. You’ll have to watch Detention for a few minutes before you get to Joseph Kahn’s name in puke and by that point you’ll be under no illusions as to his directing style, thanks to a barrage of deliberate high school clichés, quick-fire pop-culture references and bodily fluids from the moment the film begins. The effect is slightly overwhelming at first but that’s what Kahn wants: you’ll have to keep up. It may be a struggle at times but if you sit up straight and pay attention you just might learn something.
The film starts with a direct to camera address by Taylor Fisher (Alison Woods), self-confessed “B.I.T.C.H.” and spoilt teen brat of Grizzly Lake high School. Taylor is awful and you might not want to spend much time with her but don’t worry, you won’t have to as within minutes she is brutally murdered by a local serial killer dressed as Cinderhella, the subject of a series of slasher movies that are a big hit with the teens of Grizzly Lake. The focus of the story then switches to Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a fellow Grizzly Lake High student who isn’t cool enough for the cheerleaders but is too attractive and self-aware to fit in with the nerds, even if she is temporarily hobbled by a walking brace. Riley has a crush on the similarly not-cool-not-a-nerd Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), but he is dating the inexplicably nineties-obsessed Ione Foster (Spencer Locke). Will Riley be able to capture Clapton’s heart? And will either of them make it to the end of the movie without falling victim to Cinderhella?
If Detention sounds derivative then that’s just what the director intended, but the label barely begins to cover the number of pop culture references and plot twists in a story that also includes time travel, alien abduction, body swapping and snuff porno. Kahn is primarily a Grammy-award-winning director of music videos, including Without Me by Eminem and Toxic by Britney Spears, but Detention isn’t his first movie : he also directed the Ice Cube vehicle Torque, released back in 2004. Torque performed poorly at the box office, possibly because “Ice Cube on a motorcycle” sounds more like the punchline to a joke than the pitch for a successful movie, and Kahn had to wait six more years before being given the chance to direct another movie. This was Detention, which he co-wrote and part-funded himself. Under the circumstances it is easy to understand why Kahn might think this was his last chance to direct another movie, and Detention very much feels like the work of someone seizing the opportunity to cram in every gag they can think of. This makes for a relentlessly entertaining and funny film but a sometimes overwhelming excess of ideas. There are times when I wish it would slow down, take a breather and try to develop the relationship between Riley and Clapton. Chances are they are going to end up together, unless either of them turns out to be Cinderhella, of course, but you don’t really care that much if it happens. The detention class itself isn’t mentioned until the latter half of the movie and is then followed by a dizzying amount of story packed into a relatively short space of time: sometimes, less is more.
But if Kahn’s experience as a music video director has left him with a short attention span, it has also given him a fantastic array of technical skills and it’s here that Detention really comes into its own. Every shot is packed with detail and you could watch the film many times without catching all the visual or verbal jokes and pop culture nods. The film has a lot of fun with Scream, Back To The Future and Saw but there are a ton of less obvious references for eagle-eyed viewers to spot. Questioned, Kahn said that the most obscure quote is from the 1996 Stephen Baldwin & Laurence Fishburne movie Fled, which fact will no doubt greatly appreciated by the 5 or 6 people who saw Fled and still remember it. The danger with a film like this is that it can easily turn into a cynical Scary Movie-type exercise, but Kahn does a great job of integrating the elements into his own story and it’s very hard to predict where the film is going. But does it end with a Prom Night dance? Well yes, of course it does.
So why did Detention perform so badly at the US box office? Blame it on Sony Pictures and Josh Hutcherson. The film was finished in 2011 and was instrumental in winning Hutcherson the role of Peeta in the Hunger Games series. Sony then decided that the release should be delayed until April 2013, to cash in on the wave of Josh Hutcherson mania that never quite swept the nation – and failed to back the film up with a significant marketing campaign. However, the real death blow was dealt by another movie released that weekend, Cabin In The Woods, which must have caused Khan no end of pain as it was aimed at exactly the type of audience that Detention was intended for and, of course, was a huge success. It’s a shame that Hutcherson inadvertently helped to bury the film as he gives an enjoyable performance here, looking more relaxed than in the Hunger Games movies. (Maybe he prefers it when he’s not in danger of being upstaged by his own clothing.) The rest of the teen cast are relative unknowns and they acquit themselves well, especially the two female leads and the quite amazing Travis Fleetwood as Canadian student Gord. The film also includes some bewilderingly brief cameos from Lost’s Dominic Monaghan, Veronica Mars’ Percy Daggs III and porn’s Ron Jeremy, thankfully not performing his trademark self-fellatio act here.
Kahn has been a prolific director of commercials and music videos since 1990 and freely admits that a lot of the work he accepts is for money rather than love. Detention is clearly a project that is still very close to his heart, even though he acknowledges that he may never see a profit from it. Three years after completion and two years after its US release, he is still happy to promote it to anyone that will listen, as he did earlier this week with a Q+A at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s swinging west end. It seems a little unfair that his patience hasn’t been rewarded with a UK release of any kind and you hope that Detention will one day see the light of day here. Perhaps that could still happen when the next wave of Josh Hutcherson mania sweeps the nation. Khan is directing fewer music videos these days, and his only release so far this year is the Shakira/Rihanna collaboration Can’t Remember To Forget You, a song which I already seem to have remembered to forget. It’s easy to imagine that his drop in productivity is just a strategy to avoid having to direct another video by the charmless R&B girlfriend-beater Chris Brown, but happily it seems that Kahn is once again focusing his energies on the movie world: he confirmed that he is currently working on a short film for release onto the internet and he is also writing the scripts for two new movies. It would be great to see him getting another chance to direct using the lessons he has learned from his Detention experience and four more years in the field, and if he wants to write his name in vomit again then that’s fine with me.
Phil Wonfornine is not on Twitter, but he is thinking of joining Myspace one of these days. Detention is available on DVD.