What is it about Christmas that makes it such a fertile playground for genre cinema?
It also seems like every year at Fantastic Fest we have at least one film that takes place in the “most wonderful time of the year”. Deadly Games, The Lodge, Rare Exports, Anna and the Apocalypse, Better Watch Out, are just a few recent examples and this year we have the feature length debut by writer/director Maria Bissell, How to Deter a Robber.
The film, which just had its world premiere this week at the fest, is a darkly comedic coming of age tale with a narrative engine that is a bizarre hybrid of Home Alone and Fargo. The story follows the precious 18 year-old Madison (Vanessa Marano), who is spending Christmas with her family and her bumbling childhood boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), at their remote cabin in Northern Wisconsin. When the young couple sneaks into a neighbor’s vacant cabin to investigate some odd lights, they pass out after a bit of partying, only to wake up to discover the cabin had been robbed. After reporting it to the authorities, only to be branded as possible suspects, the couple is instructed to stay in the county during the investigation; while the rest of the family heads back to Chicago for New Year’s Eve.
Believing their house to be next, Madison and Jimmy then fortify their cabin with Kevin McCallister inspired booby traps, all under the watchful eye of Uncle Andy, tasked with supervising the pair. Of course the bandits return and attempt to rob the house with all three people inside, and chaos ensues as you’d probably expect. While the setup here is predictably hilarious, the third act stumbles a bit as the home invasion arc gives way to a moment of clarity for Madison, thanks to the violence erupting around her. It’s this very clear choice by Bissell that drives the remainder of the story as Madison isn’t simply content with surviving the ordeal, but also leaving this experience as a better person than when the film began.
Choosing character development over story and carnage isn’t the safest choice in a genre film at Fantastic Fest, but here it honestly works and really locks into the themes of the new beginnings afforded by the holidays. Also I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, but aging up our protagonists, in a “coming of age” scenario also really adds to the relevancy to the film given the current norm, and necessity, of choosing the comfort of the nest over independence. Looking back, the groundwork was definitely there and because of this switch you as an audience definitely leave the film with a much better vibe than if you had witnessed a more traditional gore soaked climax.
What really makes this all sort of gel together in How to Deter A Robber is the outstanding ensemble cast who really dig into their roles imbuing them all with a sympathetic truth. Character actor Chris Mulkey is a clear standout here as Uncle Andy, who deals out some much needed real talk to the couple and sage-like advice to Madison. Even for a comedy/horror/thriller I honestly have to say all of these characters feel genuinely lived in and less like the caricatures you might’ve come to expect from the genre. It’s these performances that kept me invested from start to finish, even when the film refocuses, thanks to a steady hand by Maria Bissell, who guides the audience through the transition.
How to Deter a Robber is a confident first time feature that delivers a fresh and hilariously charming take on a well worn genre premise. It’s basically home invasion with a heart, which you don’t really expect given the setup. The film is definitely a worthy addition to the Fantastic Fest holiday canon, and something I can’t wait to spring on my unsuspecting friends and family next holiday season.