Blu-Ray Review: Fender Bender (2016)
The film Fender Bender is not terribly dissimilar from the only time I was involved in a vehicular collision.
I was on my way to work one morning and arrived at the point where the two-lane expressway by my home splits in two directions, which is typically an incredible task for Cincinnati’s hilariously inept drivers to fathom. This morning was no exception, and in a bumper-to-bumper queue, a woman’s front bumper loudly and resolutely contacted my rear bumper, likely a consequence of confusion or distraction or both. A magical dance and a fleeting moment of connection, all like something out of a fairy tale.
Pulling off to the side of the road, we mutually exited our vehicles to assess the damage. To our shared surprise (and relief), there was nothing to behold. Not so much as a bent license plate corner or a misplaced speck of paint. No indication whatsoever that our vehicles had ever come into contact with one another. So, without saying or doing much else, we shrugged, wished one another a good day, and went on about our mornings.
That’s the impression I was left with after watching Fender Bender, out now on Blu-Ray from Scream Factory. I watched it. It happened; of that much, I can be certain. But it was so lacking in memorable material that even the passage of a day’s time will render the experience as inconsequential and quickly forgotten as that bumper tap from all those years ago.
You can now purchase Fender Bender on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.
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Trailer: Fender Bender (2016)
Fender Bender focuses primarily on the story of 17-year-old Hilary Diaz (Makenzie Vega), whose day is going from bad to worse to terrifying. After spotting her boyfriend Andy (Harrison Sim) smooching with a cheerleader, her mom’s new Nissan Sentra gets rear-ended by an outwardly affable man in an old black muscle car with some unusual red discoloration on the bumper. Hilary shares her information—including name and address—during an uncomfortable encounter with The Driver (Bill Sage), all the while unaware that she is the latest object of his psychopathic obsession. Even worse? Her parents are so displeased with the damage to the car that they decide not to take her to see what one can only presume to be some kind of ballet or dance performance, leaving her alone and vulnerable when her “fender bender friend” comes calling.
She would have perhaps known to expect this fate were she privy to the opening of the film, which takes the not-even-remotely unfamiliar path of introducing the audience to a woman (Cassidy Freeman) whose sole function consists of setting up the killer’s method and padding out the body count. There’s tactfully-avoided nudity, ominous texts (“Enjoy your bubble bath”), and curtains fluttering in a breeze emanating from an open window that should be closed. Basically, if you have seen any slasher flick in the past 30 years, Fender Bender has no new tricks in store for you.
And that’s completely fine—nobody really expects horror films to reinvent the wheel, making it all the more surprising when they occasionally do—or it at least would be if Fender Bender better prioritized being an engaging or even interesting film. Where the film seems to want to borrow a great deal of its pacing from House of the Devil, filling the little moments with Hilary’s teenage-girl affectations and using them to inform her personality, it winds up feeling like a bit too much of a crawl and takes too long before it gets going, sabotaging its own effort at character building and leaving the viewer inclined to busy themselves with their smartphones. It is a film that is not without its charms, but charm can only carry a film so far.
The premise is certainly an interesting one for as simple as it is, and it is one in which there is a great deal of potential. Unlike a hockey mask-wearing zombie or a horribly-burnt dream-stalker, the idea that a stranger could use a minor accident as a vehicle to hunt someone is plausible enough that it is frightening on a visceral level. The idea that it would be a young and inexperienced driver thrust into this situation makes it come across as all the more realistic.
Director Mark Pavia makes it clear in the early going that he is interested in building his aesthetic around long, lingering shots that make even the most open spaces feel claustrophobic and cramped rooms feel maddening. It is an approach quite clearly cribbed from John Carpenter, an influence literally written on the director’s forehead in a behind-the-scenes featurette, but whereas Carpenter knew how to occupy those spaces and manipulate them in order to ratchet up tension, Pavia merely occupies them with barely-there characters and little else. There is a lot of great camerawork and an impressive sense of atmosphere to be found here, but it amounts to a mountain of style and a molehill of substance at best.
Adding to that atmosphere is a solid score from synthwave duo Night Runner, which is evocative of Carpenter’s Halloween score at some points, of Diasterpiece’s It Follows score at others, and of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” during the Drive-inspired opening credits sequence. What is equally impressive is Pavia’s understanding of when not to use that score, which allows him to ring as much tension as he can out of quiet moments. Unfortunately, because of the underdevelopment of the film’s characters, there is only so much tension to be rung.
Despite spending the bulk of the movie with her, it never feels like we get to know our lead. Contextually, we figure out a few things about Hilary. That she is an aspiring dancer. That she has two friends and, at one time, a boyfriend. That she has parents who are perhaps a bit harried and overprotective, but who love her. She is a Christian, which can be gleaned from the recurring motif of the crucifix evident throughout her home. That she has a stuffed bear (named Harry Manilow, natch) and a cellphone and a room full of teenage girl paraphernalia. And…well, that’s really about it. There is very little done in the 90-minute runtime to make the audience relate to her—an issue that is certainly not helped by stilted dialogue or the largely wooden delivery thereof—which makes her dynamic turn in the third act feel like it comes out of nowhere and effectively takes all of the punch out of what might otherwise be an impactful ending.
There is a 20-minute stretch that begins about a half-hour into the film where we follow Hilary through her evening alone. A sequence of events heightens her awareness that something is off: she sees the old, black muscle car stalking the perimeter of her neighborhood while she is on the line with her insurance rep. She receives an apologetic text from her “fender bender friend,” who indicates that he knows her parents are away. She finds a cake on the roof of her car, the word “sorry” emblazoned on top in icing. She discovers that someone has come into her home, deleted the pictures of the accident off of her phone, and replaced them with photos of her in the shower. It’s about as slow as it sounds, clearly the director’s intention, but it is less unnerving than it is uninteresting because of how little the viewer cares about her character at that point.
Secondaries fare no better. Hilary’s friends Rachel (Dre Davis) and Erik (Kelsey Leos Montoya) pop in halfway through the film in what must surely be a grasping attempt at introducing levity and simultaneously fleshing out Hilary’s paper-thin personality. What it instead does is bring things to a screeching halt, the tempo and tone suddenly shifting wildly as the trio do their best to perform a kitchen table scene that plays out like Quentin Tarantino by way of Ryan Murphy by way of Babelfish. Perhaps if this scene had occurred prior to the cat-and-mouse game being afoot, there would be cause enough to become engaged when the characters are imperiled.
Hilary’s one-time boyfriend is somehow even thinner than the lot: he exists only to show up drunk in the middle of the impromptu pizza party, menace Hilary and her friends from the threshold of the front door, spout some lines straight out of an MRA handbook, say the word “bitch” three times, and get stabbed to death. He doesn’t even get the chance to be obnoxious enough to make the audience want to see him get ganked, though they certainly try to get their money’s worth in about two minutes. As the man said, so it goes.
In the Blu-Ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette, Pavia says that Carpenter’s strong characters are something that he aspired to replicate in this film. Certainly, that is something to be desired from a genre director, as Carpenter was always exceptional at making his characters matter. In Halloween, for example, the audience is given cause to care about Annie, Lynda, and Laurie in the span of the walk home from school. That one scene was all it took for Carpenter to create the sensation that these were not actors intoning lines of dialogue and affecting personalities, but people with lives beyond what was being captured in those moments.
But by the time the killer appears in Hilary’s home and begins to give chase, two-thirds of the movie has passed and there are exactly zero connective strands to pull the audience into the story or make them believe that they are watching anything other than stock characters slouching towards their inevitable deaths. Rachel and Erik are barely characters so much as they are sacks of blood waiting to be popped. Both have maybe two or three traits that seem to define them wholesale—Erik is gay, wears a tie, and likes cake; Rachel has a cool haircut and is supportive of her friends but also maybe an independent badass. Apart from that, they are merely there to keep the heat off of Hilary long enough that the film can build to her final showdown with The Driver and die bloody in the process.
The Driver is an interesting attempt at crafting a memorable slasher, one who utilizes a somewhat unique system for determining his victims. Despite this, he ultimately feels too derivative of other, better-realized movie monsters. There are bits of Stuntman Mike, John Ryder, Frankenstein (Death Race 2000), and Michael Myers to be sure, but it seems like the primary template for The Driver’s daytime form is Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive—conveniently also only known as The Driver. Like Gosling, Sage makes his Driver a cold and distant being, one seemingly unfamiliar with basic tenets of human interaction, trading a toothpick and driving gloves for a pair of aviator shades and silver fox stubble.
Sage lends an air of fetishistic sensuality to The Driver’s game, albeit one that would probably be better served by less overtness and on-the-nose dialogue. During the scene where he and Hilary exchange information after the collision, The Driver makes it a point to ask if this is her “first time”—he then calls her a “virgin,” clarifying for anyone who might have missed the double entendre—and intentionally leaves out the word “information” when asking if they should exchange. While running through the carwash, he longingly strokes the paper containing her information. Even the shot of The Driver entering the carwash could be interpreted as having a sexual undertone, but that could also just be my year in film school talking out of turn.
Perhaps that sense of perversion is what lead The Driver to his chosen serial killer-mode attire: all black clothing, black gloves, zipped-up leather jacket, and an unusual mask that seems to be an amalgamation of The Collector and The Gimp from Pulp Fiction. In the behind-the-scenes featurette, Pavia claims that The Driver is an extension of his car even when he is outside of it, which may indicate that the mask is intended to make our slasher look more like an anthropomorphic car-man—vertical grille slats for teeth and round headlights for eyes—than a googly-eyed leather daddy.
Less easily explained is The Driver’s weapon of choice: some kind of enormous, handled switchblade knife that he wields as one would a lunch pail or a clothing iron. It may simply be another attempt to differentiate The Driver from the pack, but it doesn’t achieve that intention. At the very least, it could have been something car-related to play into the idea that he is an extension of his vehicle. It could have, for example, just been a knife blade embedded in a fender. That’s totally an idea.
Still, even with the duality of The Driver as Ryan Gosling and The Driver as Machine from 8MM, he does not stand out in a sea of generic cinema slashers. Sage is the most compelling actor in the film by a country mile, but he cannot do that much within the limited framework he is provided, try though he might.
Now, none of this is to say that Fender Bender is a bad film. It is a film that promises to bring the viewer “back to a time when the boxes on the shelf at your local video store beckoned you with masked, knife-wielding maniacs and a twisted sense of morals.” It definitely feels like that kind of throwback in the sense that this would fit in perfectly with any of the other low-budget slasher flicks that I might have picked up at a Blockbuster on a Friday night based solely on the cover art and the blurb on the back. Had it existed in that era, and had I discovered it that way, it would have easily been one of the better choices I could have made on a given night.
But being degrees better than forgettable ‘80s and ‘90s slasher films does not a good film make. Certainly, I wanted to like Fender Bender. When I purchased the film, I did so under no illusion that it would be concerned with rebuffing or inverting genre conventions or even with presenting reasonably strong character development. And there is something to be said for films that set out with the singular purpose of replicating the milieu of a different era, even if they promise nothing in terms of bringing fresh ideas to the table.
Fender Bender’s biggest failing, arguably, is not doing anything particularly interesting at all. It is just kind of a completely forgettable film. I have a major soft spot for Pavia’s previous directorial effort, the 1997 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Night Flier. That is not what I think many would reasonably describe as a good film, but it is one that I enjoy quite a bit. It is rich with atmosphere, features some great performances (particularly from Miguel Ferrer), and delivers in terms of lots of icky stuff. In brief, it is highly entertaining, and entertaining is typically memorable. Sometimes, entertaining is just enough, particularly when it comes to horror films.
Having not seen that film in years, I can vividly recall several moments from it, from Ferrer’s irascible interactions with his unwanted partner to the appearances of the titular nocturnal pilot. I finally just watched It Follows and The Babadook for the first time last week, and both films have followed me through the intervening days like their respective inescapable monsters.
Maybe 16 hours removed from watching Fender Bender, however, very little has stuck with me at all. It is not the audience-affronting drivel that some genre pictures are, but it is not one that I would ever go out of my way to watch again, either. If one were to compare slasher fare to cars, with, say, Halloween being a BMW i8 and Halloween: Resurrection being an AMC Gremlin with a flat tire being driven flaming off of a cliff by Busta Rhymes making kung-fu noises, then Fender Bender would be like a low-mileage 2008 Honda Accord. It’ll get from Point A to Point B, but you aren’t going to have too much of a ball in between.
Ultimately, as evidenced by the special features, it is a film made by people with passion for the project, which in itself makes it feel more meritorious than some other cash-in fare. You could certainly do worse for the $15 you will spend to get a copy—the option of being able to watch the film with a VHS tape filter may even merit a second viewing—but you could also get a lot better bang for your buck with different fare.
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Photos: Shout! Factory