If you take a gander at the evocative one sheet for Bridget Smith and Samuel Gonzalez Jr.’s The Retaliators and wonder what subgenre of horror the film is appropriating, the closest answer would be “all of them.” The movie is primarily a throwback to ’80s-era low-budget horror and splatter flicks where women exist mainly to be murdered and characters are dispatched in ways that the well-adjusted can only watch through spread fingers. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as the existence of Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and many others irrefutably proves. The Retaliators, though, stumbles around in a confused, something-for-everyone netherworld where horror archetypes live in heavy metal music-laden disharmony. It traffics in themes of faith and redemption that the movie doesn’t buy any more than we do, and the story changes focus so many times in its first hour that we momentarily question who the movie is supposed to be about.
This wobbly build-up eventually resolves in a rip-roaring stretch of blood soaked, grand guignol insanity. Co-directors Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Bridget Smith, and Michael Lombardi can toss around the viscera in ways that would make their fanboy-approved influences nod in appreciation. They can also toss around subplots and characters with equal abandon, which is where the problems lie. Consequently, when they finally get down to gruesome business, even if audiences manage to ignore the perilous thematic ground upon which the film treads, this midnight movie bloodfest still proves to be a fatal victim of shaky storytelling.
Unless you’re The Exorcist or a handful of other horror films, making your main character a religious figure is just a cheap way to pretend that your movie is an exploration of faith in crisis. At best, it gives your lead a clear, if simplistic, arc to play, as it does with a pastor named John Bishop. Played by a game but less than commanding Michael Lombardi (FX’s Rescue Me), Bishop is the youthful and handsome creator of “world famous potato skins” and the protective father to a pair of young daughters. As befitting his profession, Bishop also knows how to turn a cheek, as when he backs down while confronting a bully (Kevin Smith company player Brian O’Halloran) at a Christmas tree lot.
The script, from brothers Darren and Jeff Geare, piques our interest early with touches that suggest Bishop will be our guide for a sly and gore-filled tour through a bygone era of genre cinema. After his older daughter, Sarah (Katie Kelly), name-checks Die Hard, Bishop responds with words he’ll soon want to take back, “Eighties action heroes solve problems with violence and one-liners. Real life doesn’t work that way.” These encouraging winks of humor give way to something more self-serious than we were initially promised, and more complicated than it needed to be. There’s a drug war brewing in town, one that arrives out of nowhere, is vaguely explained, and is then forgotten. However, it does lead to the introduction of the film’s most entertaining character, the vicious, hulking, and very bald Ram (Joseph Gatt). Clearly meant to recall Pluto (Michael Berryman) from 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, Ram is so remorseless and indestructible that after he’s pepper sprayed by Sarah during a gas station encounter, he recovers immediately, then tracks her down and murders her. Later he announces his underworld supremacy with one of the least menacing lines ever uttered by a psychotic killer, “Now they know exactly who’s running this zip code.”
You needn’t be a pastor to be devastated by the death of your daughter, but then we’d miss an anguished Bishop having an emotional meltdown in the driver’s seat of his car that the filmmakers intercut with shots of stained-glass church windows and accompanied by a heavy metal song that smothers the moment in noise. Indeed, the movie is stuffed with who-cares appearances by rockers like Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and Five Finger Death Punch and mood-killing hard rock and heavy metal songs from bands like Classless Act, Papa Roach and Bad Wolves.
They’re all ready for their close-ups—because they’re signed with the content company that also produced the film. This might not bother the headbanger crowd, but it comes across as a blatantly mercenary compromise of the overall work, and it takes precious cues away from Stranger Things composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The low point comes during one of Bishop’s sermons, when dozens of middle-aged men and pre-teen girls sit approvingly in their pews as the hard rock band From Ashes To New grinds out a triple-decibel live song. When the congregants improbably leap to their feet to give the band a rousing standing ovation, we’re not sure if they’re celebrating the performance or the smattering of Amazon Music downloads that’ll result from it.
The Retaliators’ most provocative idea is foreshadowed by the film’s title, which is tellingly plural not singular. The other retaliator is Jed (Ozark’s Marc Menchaca), a grizzled former detective who’s grizzled for reasons that take a long time to explain and include a flashback that occurs within another flashback. He takes center stage to the detriment of Bishop, who gets reduced to spending sizable chunks of the runtime sitting on the sidelines. When Jed tracks down Ram, Bishop is given a difficult decision to make that’ll test how far he’s willing to go to exact revenge.
Vigilantism is nothing new in horror cinema or any other kind of cinema. But the movie is not really interested in exploring the concept, and making Bishop a priest doesn’t give it any added weight. In fact, the movie prefers we ignore the moral implications of Bishop’s actions because there’s half an hour of mayhem—shot with B-movie vigor by Joe Hennigan—waiting to be unleashed. All this would be acceptable if there was a deliberate theme or concept to unite it. The film teases us with hat-tips and in-jokes and then pushes them aside to become an ungainly horror mashup that works in pieces, most notably during its climatic free-for-all, but not as a whole. In The Retaliators, the storylines fly in as many directions as the blood.