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Friday, July 9, 2021

[Review] Netflix’s ‘A Classic Horror Story’ Loses Itself in Borrowed Plot and Tropes

Paying homage to popular classics can be a tricky thing. It’s a delicate balance between appreciation and appropriation, and testing the boundaries without crossing them takes restraint. With a title like A Classic Horror Story and a logline that nods to formative horror movies, you expect a more pronounced degree of homage in store. But A Classic Horror Story isn’t targeting a specific era or title in horror to pay tribute; it wants to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. It results in a bizarre, disjointed experience full of great imagery but confused story and messaging.

After a quick opening hook, A Classic Horror Story assembles a group of strangers gathering for a carpool trip to Southern Italy. Elisa (Revenge’s Matilda Lutz) takes a spot in the carpool to get to her surgery; she’s following her overbearing mother’s demands to get an abortion. The internal conflict over this decision hangs over Elisa, even as she struggles to keep any food down. Riccardo (Peppino Mazzotta) is a doctor who wants to keep to himself. Sofia (Yullia Sobol) and Mark (Will Merrick) are lovebirds intending to elope. The group’s driver is Fabrizio (Francisco Russo), a cinephile that wants to document everything for his social media pages. All of their plans get derailed when the R.V. crashes, knocking the eclectic bunch unconscious. When they come to, they discover their miles away from any road in sight. And they’re not alone.

Writer/Directors Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli begin A Classic Horror Story with a setup that emulates A Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both in visual style and plot. The sepia-toned imagery of a fivesome road tripping into rural territory, unaware they’ll soon run afoul of an isolated clan, mirrors the classic. Fabrizio could even be a dead ringer for Franklin, down to the costuming and mannerisms. Once they arrive at a mysterious house in the middle of a forest, De Feo and Strippoli leave Chain Saw mostly in the rearview.

A Classic Horror Story works best in the front half when it’s still unclear what’s happening. With no knowledge of how they got there, they spend their days lost and confused and their nights in terror as death ensues. Each night also brings them closer to answers, and it’s at this point that De Feo and Strippoli start borrowing prominently from modern horror, Midsommar chief among them. A retro love letter turns into a manic meta nightmare, none of it coherent as a whole.

What makes this extra chaotic is how each new shift in horror inspiration dovetails with new social commentary. By the time the end credit hook happens, the filmmakers’ point is clear as mud. At large, it seems to offer a scathing critique of those who dislike horror but have no problem cheerily existing in a world of reality-based terror. Still, the particular choice of villain contradicts this, with an unflattering examination of modern fandom’s media consumption. Throw in a few culturally specific issues related to classism and even nods to the mafia, and it’s about as messy as the endless barrage of borrowed horror moments.

It’s technically polished, and the red gels go far in lending a stylistic flourish. The feature never entirely pushes the envelope as far as it should on the gore but does sprinkle in a few fun moments. Lutz tries her hardest to rise above the script’s constraints; her backstory is more plot device, but she nonetheless makes for a winsome heroine. A Classic Horror Story starts strong, reeling you in with a story full of possibilities. All potential gets discarded as the movie emulates the characters by getting lost in the middle of nowhere.

Netflix releases A Classic Horror Story on July 14.


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