Kevin Smith has been my hero for a long time now, and his experimentation with the horror genre only makes him more of one in my eyes. I wanted to write a Netflix Hidden Gem about Red State, his 2011 venture into the horror genre, in honor of his newest venture into horror, the far more widely talked about (though seemingly not so widely seen) Tusk. I’m a little late on that now, and in all this time, I haven’t even gotten a chance to see Tusk. Nevertheless, Red State as a standalone film (or perhaps as a horror-approach to thematically following up 1999’s Dogma) is a fun, if imperfect, first attempt at the horror genre that maintains Kevin Smith’s singular sense of humor and timing.
Based not-so-loosely on the real Westboro Baptist Church (who have since made a spectacular history of protesting this very film, a spectacle so great that it largely overshadowed the film itself), Red State follows a few good old midwestern teens who are lured in by an online invitation for sex with a stranger– already a bad idea, of course. And Smith does not shy away from emphasizing their innocent though foolishly naive hedonism. The film conveniently opens though with one of the teens, Travis (played by Michael Angarano), passing by a funeral being protested by the obnoxious fundamentalist group, here called the Five Points Trinity Church, with the infamous Pastor Abin Cooper (played with utter camp and conviction by the legendary Michael Parks) standing by the proceedings with a look of glee and pride on his face.
Back to the invitation– aka trap– that the boys receive– aka fall into; this is not much of a spoiler considering it’s pretty clear that the boys will end up in the sinister hands of the fundamentalist group in some way or another (and the woman who tricks them is played by Melissa Leo who refers to sex as “the devil’s business,” so that’s also pretty ominous). Smith may not fully nail suspense or surprise but he does nail a kind of unabashedly over-the-top intensity. And for a horror film whose villain is intensity itself– the intensity of a religious group’s sick, skewed devotion to an apparently violent God– that’s the most important element to execute well, in some ways. Smith’s upward angle shot of Parks giving a terrifying, totally insane sermon is one of the first truly chilling moments in the film, and the best part is, I think Smith is aware that we’ll also, even if deep down subconsciously or with a feeling of obligatory suppression, want to laugh– whether out of nervousness or at the sheer preposterousness of it or because it is so cynical and referential.
The film only gets more intense and over-the-top as it progresses, but it’s also surprisingly stylish at times. It even has a consistently bleak look to it, a lack of vibrancy, a dullness that makes it all seem that much darker, even at its funniest points; after all, it continues to rely on dark humor even in its most violent moments. The central conflict becomes that between law enforcement, led by John Goodman, and the religious group Goodman’s team is tasked with taking down. The film is a self-aware, campy crusade into the horror genre by someone who you’d maybe never associate with that genre. But Smith, a filmmaker who famously doubles as a fanboy, sure does know his comedic strengths and uses them, along with his reverence for and obvious knowledge of the genre, to create a kind of horror-homage-turned-social-satire– a horrific and hilarious way of making a statement about something he clearly finds both horrific and somehow hilarious.