The condemned: Triggered (2020)
The plot: Anyone hoping for an appearance from Adam Carolla, get ready to be disappointed. (Is anyone besides Adam Carolla hoping for an appearance from Adam Carolla these days?) Despite a title that makes it sound like bait for the No Safe Spaces crowd, Triggered is neither a right-wing documentary nor a fictionalized account of some poor, oppressed American Christians fighting back against those mean old Twitter accounts. No, this is a film that takes its title quite literally: There is a trigger, it is activated, and the results are explosive.
A group of former friends reunite, five years after their high school days, to catch up and attend a big football game. However, with all the nearby town’s hotels booked up, they head to the woods for a night of camping. That’s the plan, anyway—until they wake up halfway through the night, realize the group was knocked unconscious with gas, and discover they’ve each been outfitted with a time-bomb vest, paired with a ticking digital clock, with different amounts of time for each person. Before you can say, “Worst game of charades ever,” the culprit appears: Mr. Peterson (Sean Cameron Michael), the group’s former high school science teacher, who somehow holds them responsible for the overdose death of his son, Caleb, a half-decade earlier.
They ask more questions, but Mr. Peterson puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger (there’s the first incidence! Drink every time I write “trigger,” and it will not end well). This leads the gang to confront Bobby (Michael Lawrence Potter), the one who talked them all into this camping trip. Unfortunately, Bobby reveals he was blackmailed by Mr. Peterson to lead them into this trap in the woods. They soon notice Bobby has the least amount of time on his vest clock; when the countdown stops, the vest explodes, taking Bobby along with it. Understandably freaking out (no one has more than an hour or so on their respective timers), they scatter into the woods for help. But when panicking Shay (Suraya Rose dos Santos) startles musician PJ (Cameron Scott) and he accidentally hits her with his flashlight, killing her, the group learns the rules of the scenario: Killing another person will get that time added to their own clock, and the last one alive at the end of the night gets to survive.
It’s everyone for themselves; or, more accurately, every couple for themselves, as the gang splits into groups of two, looking for a solution to the problem. Or—for the less charitably-minded members of this noxious little posse—planning who to kill, and how best to kill them. However, they soon discover another person out in the woods: Detective Miller (Craig Urbani), father to smart girl Rian (Reine Swart), who was captured earlier by Peterson, and who reveals a potential way out. Peterson had a second trigger [drink] on his person when he died, one that might dismantle the vests. As the young people start to turn on one another and fight for their lives, a few of them rush to locate the secondary trigger [drink] and save the day before they’re all reduced to buckets of chum.
Over-the-top box copy: “Your countdown has begun,” which is legit a pretty good tagline. No glowing review copy, though, which can be a warning sign of a movie’s quality, if producers couldn’t find a single voice willing to lend some positive press soundbites. In this case, however, they could have easily done so, considering this thing somehow managed to get three stars from The New York Times. To each their own!
The theoretically heavenly talent: This is a South African production, made with nearly all English-speaking South African actors. (The film is technically set in small-town rural America, a conceit which starts to get more hilarious as time goes by and nearly every performer lets their effort at an American accent slip.) The only character actor some might recognize is Sean Cameron Michael, who’s been in everything from shows like Black Sails and 24 to tons of DTV movies, not to mention a bit part in Tom Cruise’s misbegotten The Mummy reboot. Also, I’ve apparently seen Reine Swart several times, as she’s turned up in small roles in films and TV episodes I’ve written about for this very site.
The descent: To be frank, I was initially drawn to the title for purely looky-loo reasons, thinking maybe it was exactly the kind of right-wing hate-watch I outlined above. So while discovering it was just another low-budget action-horror exercise cooled my curiosity somewhat, the fact that it was an all-South African production attempting to re-create small-town America was interesting to me; and after the analytical horror podcast Faculty Of Horror gave it a hearty endorsement on its year-in-review episode, I decided to check it out. That podcast had never steered me wrong before. But as kids who wake up in suicide vests can probably attest, there’s a first time for everything.
The execution: How much shouting can you take? Honestly, if there’s one thing I assumed a straightforward genre exercise like this would do, it’s include less mean-spirited screaming matches than a standard installment of Hannity. Alas, the film falls victim to one of my least-favorite moves commonly found in lazy horror productions: Having a group of people who were supposedly good friends give no indication why they’d ever even want to be in the same room together, let alone be friendly, and alternate demands to help each other with the most bile-laden expletives imaginable. You know that scene in Piranha 3D where Eli Roth’s wet-T-shirt emcee is desperately begging to be pulled to safety, and instead he inexplicably yells at the woman trying to help him, “You fucking whore”? It’s sort of like a whole movie of that. Want an old friend to put down their weapon so you can try and survive the night together? Why not call him a cowardly piece of shit too weak to ever hurt someone, just to see what happens? Here, watch PJ try to calm down his old buddy Kato—you can practically feel the hugs.
The whole thing just goes on like that. At one point a guy reaches out and says, “Take my hand,” to help his girlfriend over some difficult terrain, and she shrieks, “I don’t WANT YOUR HELP, EZRA!” It’s How I Met Your Mother’s Robin yelling at Patrice, ad infinitum. None of these people seem capable of not being a complete piece of shit for more than five seconds at a time, with the exception of Erin (Liesl Ahlers), clearly set up to be the Final Girl, thanks to people repeatedly calling her a “weirdo” who is “shy” and “quiet”—you know, attributes that are unforgivable to a bunch of loudmouth, soon-to-be-dead jagoffs. Rian and her boyfriend, PJ, are also demarcated as “nice,” mainly because they’re not actively trying to kill everyone else. But really, the entire group took a long time to distinguish, mostly because they are interchangeably odious. Here’s how I distinguished these nine characters for the first hour or so of this 90-minute movie:
Erin—shy one, therefore only sane/nice one?
Rian—short hair, and therefore slightly less cruel
Kato—asshole with zero other identifying characteristics (yellow sweatshirt?)
PJ—dumb guy in a band asshole
Unidentifiable Mean Girl—with Kato? Asshole (I later learned her name was Amber)
Bobby—died right away, asshole
Shay—screaming asshole, also died pretty quick, which was a relief
Rarely has a more unpleasant assemblage of action-horror movie cannon fodder been displayed for your enjoyment. Look, your mileage may vary on how much of this sort of wafer-thin characterization—primarily made up of characters spitting obscenities at each other—is tolerable. For me, it got exhausting mighty quick, well before Bobby’s timer ran out and I head his last words, which are (I shit you not), “Fuck me in my asshole.” When Peterson shows up to tell these jerks about the situation, one of his first lines to them is, “Shut the fuck up! God, you’re all so annoying,” and he’s not wrong.
But let’s not linger on the swearing, not when there are so many other weird malapropisms and efforts at Americanized young-person-speak to wonder at. The script, credited to David D. Jones, has some lines that just sound wrong. (Peterson: “I watched my son die. And then I watched my wife dose herself on his suicide.” What?) But more to the point, there are all sorts of attempts to give the kids snappy patter that comes across like a Jay Leno monologue wisecrack. Amber to Cece: “I can read you like a celebrity gossip blog.” Or again, Amber: “Then you need to be Amber Heard to his Johnny Depp.” PJ: “There was a time when I wanted to outlive my parents. Now, I’m not even gonna outlive fax machines.” Timely reference! And sometimes, characters just say unintentionally hilarious things: Watch Kato, chasing after Rian and PJ with an ax, them fleeing in terror, with him yelling things like, “Hey guys, stop! We’re hurt real bad down here.” Again, he is chasing them with an ax when he says this. It’s like the aliens in Mars Attacks! saying they come in peace while vaporizing people.
In the film’s defense, it has some clever moments, and more importantly for horror fans, some gruesome kills. By the time any pretense has dropped and these jerks are just wantonly swinging weapons at each other, the film gets mighty bloody. Kato eventually turns on his girlfriend, Amber (who really should’ve seen it coming, considering he has been shouting about his bloodlust for awhile at that point), and dashes her head to pulp with his ax. Horror fans are a forgiving bunch, and you may be willing to forgive a lot of nonsensical screaming if it delivers kills like this:
Still, that’s a long walk for some minor-key pleasures. Some secrets are revealed, but they’re mostly of the sort you expect. Turns out, running for their lives is a trigger [drink!] for these people to reveal all the long-buried things they’ve done in the past. And for some of them, you have a hard time understanding how they functioned in society prior to tonight. Kato so quickly shifts into drooling homicidal maniac mode (by the final minutes, he’s shambling after people like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining) that you have to imagine his college roommates staged an intervention with him about all the unexplained pools of blood in the apartment and all the missing coeds on campus. Triggered doesn’t do enough with its over-the-top premise, and too often is reduced to hacky one-liners at which Arnold Schwarzenegger would’ve turned up his nose. (Kato, while smashing in PJ’s hand with a hammer: “Now that’s what I call a drum solo.”) Still, if you enjoy the semi-sadism of seeing awful people get their just deserts, you can watch a few of them explode!
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Extremely doubtful. It’s a hungover Sunday couch-watch at best, and even then it may induce too many headaches from all the unmotivated screeching.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Sadly, no. There’s not even a short making-of feature in which (I assume) the cast members talk about who lost the bet of “which actor would drop the American accent first.”