The intersection of art and life becomes extra murky when horror is involved. Do violent video games inspire violence? Do horror films make killers kill? While it is a worthy pursuit to dig deeper into the interplay of screen and flesh, certain horror films themselves scratch at that surface. Writer/director Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence has a lot to say on the matter, but deftly manages to balance being both about horror and a horror film itself.
Jesse Williams stars as Tood, the author of the “Slasherman” comics series. The ultraviolet serial lives up to its name in gory creativity, and is loosely based on the infamous “I-90 Killer” just south of the border. His girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster) happens to be researching a true crime book on that very killer, and decides to tag along on a road trip to an ersatz Comic-Con to get some new first-hand sources. Publisher Ezra (Baruchel) and assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) tag along too. After all, it is a work trip.
On the road they make a point to see the “real” back roads of upstate New York. Along the way they stop at a gas station and drop off a generous number of “Slasherman” comics, at the request of no one. Quickly thereafter Todd has a radio interview that goes awry when the host accuses him of exploiting his region’s tragic history with no concern given to the real victims of the crimes.
This conversation makes perfect sense, and is not an isolated discussion. Responsibility of art, and specifically the artist of this fictionalized violence, comes up in casual conversation on the trip, and in some heated moments between Todd and Kathy too. As a few killings along their route starts to emerge, and those brutal slayings mimic the deaths in “Slasherman,” these hypothetical questions are no longer so hypothetical.
Stylistically, Random Acts of Violence plays up its roots with flashback synth-heavy opening credits. It digs into the comic roots of “Slasherman” and essentially gives the audience permission to laugh at death. In the more visceral parts of the film, the giallo-style lighting signals that something very wrong is about to happen. It would be unfair to go so far as say these references tip it into being a meta rumination, but it is aware of the playground it is playing in.
Plenty of films have taken on the concern of art imitating life and causing death. Rob Grant’s Fake Blood does so within the framework of a close-to-home mockumentary, but The House That Jack Built and even Scream 2, 3, and 4, all take a look at art and violence. Similarly here, so much of the horror and terror in Random Acts of Violence emanates from the supposition that there may be people out there who can not draw the distinction between the screen, or page, and their lives. And there can be awfully bloody consequences.
And Random Acts of Violence sure does get bloody. Not only does the film crescendo beautifully in a mishmash of psychological trauma and buckets of blood, but the film is littered with cutaways to the victims of these copycat killings in the moments before they become victims. These scenes are textbook-perfect riffs on classic slasher films, in terms of camera allegiance and trajectory, and it sure as hell works perfectly here. The effect is that the film gets tense just when it needs to, and that it is able to show the audience what real killing is all about.
That’s the fun of Random Acts of Violence. It is both a slasher film, and a satire of slasher tropes. It is in conversation about violence, while being violent. It occupies the same space it is criticizing, and then it fills that space with blood.