An intoxicating combination of Old and 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Carnage is potent campy horror fun at its finest. The film wastes little time getting directly to the point—it gives us a taste of our lead character’s existence before plunging directly into chaos. As an eerie introductory sequence tells us, America may be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but there is nothing America loves more than a good villain. What is a scarier notion than a surprise immigration crackdown affecting even those born in the United States? American Carnage imagines that taken to its scariest extreme, and co-writer/director Diego Hallivis (Game Time, Curvature) has an absolute blast along the way.
JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love, Simon, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just trying to get by, working double shifts at burger joint Lady Liberty’s because he is such a team player. JP’s sister, Lily (Yumarie Morales, Hypochondriac), just got into Columbia, and their lives seem headed in an exciting direction. Governor Harper Finn’s newest order of business is a horrible executive order that affects nearly two million people. JP and Lily are tragically caught in the metaphorical crossfire. Separated from one another, rounded up, and basically put into cages, they are left waiting in horror as their fate hangs in the balance.
To make matters worse, JP is informed that the Governor wants all the detained immigrants gone by election day. There is one potential bright spot: if JP volunteers to a community service program to care for the elderly, he will be completely absolved. In fact, it may be his only chance of returning to his family. This doesn’t feel like much of a choice, so JP reluctantly agrees. Transported to the new Owl Cove facility run and operated by seemingly friendly supervisor Eddie (Eric Dane, Grey’s Anatomy, Euphoria), JP meets fellow detainees that will become his only friends on the inside. There is sassy activist Camila (Jenna Ortega, Scream, Babysitter: Killer Queen), anxiety-riddled pill-popper Chris (Jorge Diaz, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), cocky womanizer Big Mac (Allen Maldono, Project Power, The Midnight Meat Train), and overly-friendly Micah (Bella Ortiz). The tour seems to promise an easygoing experience, including reading to the elderly, water therapy, and napping gardens. Rules also do not seem terribly invasive. There is a strict curfew, ankle bracelets that will go off, and an insistence to stay in line. However, they are warned very simply: “do not try to escape.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out a sinister intent lurking around every sterile corner. Old folks are the subject of many a horror film, but I can guarantee you have never seen them in this way. I was rooting for JP and his friends to survive even as their situation becomes more grim and seemingly impossible to escape unscathed. Mysteries behind the true intent of Owl Cove have bone-cracking, cringe-inducing revelations to go with them. Diego Hallivis and co-writer Julio Hallivis blend the comedy and horror to dizzying heights. I must emphasize that American Carnage leans heavily into the comedic element, but the horror is still there. Just don’t expect a plethora of blood and guts to go with your genre fix.
A certain subset of viewers will likely be turned off by horror/comedy American Carnage well before they even press the play button. Personally, I was drawn to the release based on the presence of scream queen Jenna Ortega—this marks her fourth major appearance in a horror film. There is no denying that American Carnage is politically-charged horror/comedy, and while I am typically not a fan of injecting unnecessary divisiveness in mass-consumption content, this feels like a movie with something to say. Beyond the inherent silliness of the premise, illegal immigration and the horrible people in power content to bring others down and enact cruelty are on the chopping block. What does it truly mean to be an American? American Carnage posits a chilling and often hilariously appalling answer.
American Carnage checks in at the nursing home when it debuts in theaters, On Demand, and Digital on Friday, July 15th.
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