The Film: 4/5
Funded and produced by Shout! Factory and first aired on Chiller back in June, the slick and scary thriller Fender Bender is the first feature in nearly two decades from Mark Pavia, the gifted filmmaker responsible for the underrated and overlooked Stephen King short story adaptation The Night Flier. A nifty, atmospheric throwback to the slasher flicks of the early 1980’s that were heavy on mood, light on gore, and bound to be publicly condemned by Siskel and Ebert in print and on television, Fender Bender arrives on Blu-ray from Shout’s sci-fi/horror imprint Scream Factory just in time for Halloween.
Filmed on location in New Mexico, Fender Bender (which was also scripted by Pavia) opens with a tense 8-minute sequence in which Longmire’s Cassidy Freeman is stalked and brutally murdered by a remorseless figure whose face is concealed by a black leather mask seemingly modeled on Hellboy villain Kroenen. From there we meet Hilary (Makenzie Vega), a 17-year-old high school student who earned her first driver’s license just in time to get into her first automobile accident. The charming culprit (Bill Sage) apologizes for rear-ending the car that unfortunately belongs to Hilary’s mom and the two exchange insurance information. Unbeknownst to our young heroine, the handsome man in the mirrored sunglasses and denim jacket is far from what he appears to be.
After being grounded by her parents (who refuse to believe the accident could have been the responsibility of anyone else but their daughter) right before they take off for a planned vacation, Hilary is surprised by a visit from her dear friends Rachel (Dre Davis) and Erik (Kelsey Montoya), but the evening also brings two unwanted intruders: Hilary’s creepy cheat of an ex-boyfriend Andy (Harrison Sim), and the psychopath behind the horrifying gimp mask who has come to carve up Hilary and her frightened friends with his trusty knife. He has also brought his car, which is capable of doing its fair share of deadly damage.
Fender Bender is the kind of effective and entertaining lo-fi horror flick we rarely see anymore, one that prizes style and atmosphere over chunky gore and cheeseball one-liners. Its obvious antecedent would have to be the original Halloween, another haunting thriller with a modest body count that understood the narrative benefits of carefully establishing its characters and creating from the ground up a nightmarish adversary who only seems human to human eyes. Director Pavia, aided by his talented up-and-coming cinematographer Tyler Lee Cushing, utilizes the luxurious dimensions of the widescreen framing to give his made-for-cable feature the unmistakable allure of a classical cinematic fright fest. The New Mexico locations provide the appropriate foreboding setting, with suburban streets eerily similar to Carpenter’s autumnal Haddonfield and the house occupied by Hilary and her distrusting, ineffective parents making for the perfect playground where the Driver can pursue and execute his prey with cold-blooded precision.
As memorably embodied with the charisma of a coiled cobra by Bill Sage of American Psycho and Jim Mickle’s excellent remake of We Are What We Are, Pavia’s murderous Driver is evil incarnate and his creator refuses to offer any convenient armchair psychiatry to excuse his psychotic deeds. Much like the Michael Myers of John Carpenter’s original Halloween, before subsequent sequels ladled on the unnecessary backstory, the Driver is nothing more than that creature hiding within the darkness who gets the greatest of erotic charges at the thought of dragging an unwilling victim into the indescribable horrors of the eternal night. Pavia and Sage are wise to treat the killer as this unforgiving, unyielding wraith who brings death wherever he ventures.
Makenzie Vega (Saw, Sin City) gives the Driver a battle he will not soon forget as Fender Bender’s unlikely hero Hilary, believably conveying the fear and helplessness of a teenager who is surrounded by people who take advantage of her trust or treat undeservingly like a child. Her transformation to gutsy warrior in the climactic battle against the Driver is convincing and the character is developed so well by the time the violent third act kicks into gear that you will be fearing, then cheering, for Hilary to survive the night. Dre Davis (Pretty Little Liars) and Kelsey Montoya (The Guest) turn in fine supporting performances as Hilary’s friends/potential knife fodder, as do Lola Martinez-Cunningham (Sicario) and Steven Michael Quezada (Breaking Bad) as her parents. The sinewy synth soundtrack composed by the band Night Runner is the perfect musical accompaniment to Pavia’s film, a mind-melting soundscape of perverse evil and relentless death that could have been created by John Carpenter himself on one of his better days behind the keys.
Fender Bender appears to have been filmed digitally, which would explain the occasional lack of definition in texture and a persistent mild softness that is done no favors by the 1080p high-definition bump in resolution, but the 2.35:1 widescreen transfer escapes mostly unscathed with few noticeable distractions, a pleasing color scheme both warm and strong, and a naturalistic grain structure. English DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks have been provided in both the 5.1 and 2.0 options. Having tested both, I can say that the 5.1 track presents a more spacious and balanced replication of the clear and vibrant Dolby Digital sound mix. Dialogue comes through audible and pronounced, ambient effects really shine during the quieter first two acts, and there is absolutely no distortion on either track. If you’re watching the Blu-ray on a standard television without additional speakers, the 2.0 option will perform for you admirably. English subtitles have also been provided.
Scream Factory has supplied the Fender Bender Blu-ray with a respectable bounty of bonus features that kick off with two noteworthy audio commentaries. The first brings in writer/director Pavia and moderator Rob Galluzzo of Blumhouse.com for a thoughtful discussion of most aspects of the film’s production with some terrific anecdotes and filmmaking insight and little dead air. For the second track, producers Gus Krieger, Joshua Bunting, and Carl Lucas watch the film and talk about its making in detail while playing the “Fender Bender Drinking Game”, so where there’s alcohol things are bound to get loose and raucous. These inebriated gents don’t disappoint.
The featurette “Behind the Scenes of Fender Bender” (9 minutes) finds the cast and crew offering up some decent soundbites in relation to the film and its creation, with Pavia particularly animated when revealing how he got the idea for the story and how the final feature was heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s earlier films. The trailer and TV spot (2 minutes) should be avoided until after you watch the movie since they give a little too much of the action away.
In keeping with the 80’s slasher horror throwback spirit of Fender Bender, we also get to enjoy a “Retro VHS Cut” of the film that is presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and was made to look like it was recorded off of a late-night cable TV broadcast from decades ago, right down to the vintage bumper ad and introduction and “tracking” effects. To get you in the mood for Fender even more, Scream closes out the supplements with an exhaustive “Slashback” reel of vintage trailers (39 minutes) for psycho horror flicks from their library: Halloween II, Visiting Hours, Bad Dreams, Blood and Lace, Final Exam, Slumber Party Massacre, I Saw What You Did, Motel Hell, New Year’s Evil, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Psycho II, Psycho III, Schizoid, The Final Terror, Sleepaway Camp, Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland, Terror Train, The Funhouse, and The Burning.
This disc also comes with reversible cover art and a digital download code.
I went into Fender Bender expecting a fun little homage to classic slasher movies of the past, but writer/director Mark Pavia is too smart to stop there. Devoid of humor or any type of spiritual relief, the film morphs from wicked thriller to a black-as-night campfire story designed to haunt your dreams and have you looking over your shoulder until the day you die. The boogeyman cannot be killed, and that’s the triple truth, Ruth. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of Pavia’s long-awaited second horror gem is worth the purchase for genre fans due to its excellent high-definition transfer and impressive slate of supplements. Highly recommended.