Critical Flameout: Laura Kern on "Wicked Lake"

I was a little surprised to find a review for "Wicked Lake," a new horror release from Fever Dream, in this week's New York Times. I tend to be on top of the upcoming horror slate and here was something I hadn't heard peep about. Typically, that's a bad sign.

Our reviewer, Laura Kern—not among the Times' front line all-stars of Scott, Dargis, and Holden, but certainly no slouch—has some other horror reviews under her belt (most recently, Zombie Strippers), but quickly reveals herself to be not the most favorable of genre fans. Before we get started, I'd suggest watching the trailer for the film here. I have not seen this movie, but everything that follows will come solely from my reading of the trailer, which I think you'll agree is more than sufficient to see through this slapdash critique. Let's get down to business:

(I'll be addressing the review line by line. Some content has been left out for brevity's sake. Kern's words in bold.)

It’s not the water that menaces in “Wicked Lake,” an inept, nasty and absolutely irredeemable entry in the stale torture-porn subgenre of horror that more often than not features bloodthirsty clans residing in the backwoods.

Kern comes out firing here, and leaves little question as to how she felt about "Wicked Lake." I can only imagine the discussion in the editor's office:

Editor: Laura, you call the movie 'inept and nasty.' Did it have any redeeming value?
Kern: It was absolutely irredeemable.
Editor: Gold! Run it.

The opening clause of this first sentence leads me to believe that much of Kern's ire grew out of her feeling that the film was inappropriately titled. If only she hadn't been expecting a movie where water "menaces," maybe this could have been a friendlier exercise. And really, I'm not even going to dive into her deployment of 'torture-porn.' There's not time for a full diatribe here, but suffice it to say that using the term torture-porn should be #1 on the list of horror reviewer sins. It likely goes without saying that Kern was not a fan of "Hostel: Part II" when she reviewed it.

The lake serves only as a skinny-dipping site for four vacationing lesbians, who eventually reveal themselves as more villainous than the assorted deranged males who follow them to a secluded cabin, where at midnight they transform into some sort of cannibal witches.

If I had just printed this sentence, with the headline, "Times' Kern Loves New Shock-Horror Fest!" this film could have been headed for DTV cult-status. Really, could this set-up be any more incredible!?

(That this is someone’s idea of female empowerment is by far the most frightening thing about the film, besides, perhaps, the universally atrocious acting.)

Eeesh, the promise of Kern's concise synopsis goes right off the rails. Here's the thing: Kern read this movie as part of a non-existent subgenre known as 'torture-porn.' (Yes, other critics would likely agree with her. The point is that just because some films fetishize torture doesn't a subgenre make. There are many elements to a genre or subgenre, and trying to cram "Hostel" together with "Wicked Lake," likely does justice to neither and muddies the possibility for actual engagement and criticism. But I digress...)

From watching the trailer, it's pretty obvious that this film is far more likely to be a kin of rape-revenge horror, an actual subgenre that has a well-documented lineage and decades of critical analysis behind it. There's also some pretty heavy allusions to the "urban vs. rural" theme that drives a lot of exploitation horror, including rape-revenge. The more cogent comparisons (as opposed to Kern's incisive use of 'torture-porn') would likely be "I Spit on Your Grave," "Deliverance," or even "The Hills Have Eyes."

Seemingly made by randy Rob Zombie fanboys, this super-low-budget shocker by Zach Passero contains passable effects (with a standout brain-sucking sequence), awkwardly employed slow-motion and female nudity galore. It plays like an extended music video for Cinemax After Dark that is too long by 90 minutes.

Now, this I can get down with. "Randy Rob Zombie fanboys" actually tells me a lot about what I might expect from this film, but the meat of this sentence is where Kern really sets her phasers to 'infuriate.' In calling this movie a super-low-budget shocker, she appears to be doing it a favor: this is as close to no-budget as you'll find in a theater, even on limited release. Passero, who I know little about, other than what's on his IMDB page, has clearly studied at the school of horror F/X aficionados like Lloyd Kaufman or Tom Savini, and "Wicked Lake" appears to be little more than an exercise in gross out, F/X one-ups-manship, with some rape-revenge and supernatural witch elements thrown in to spice things up. (It has a brain-sucking sequence that even Kern admits is pretty sweet, do we even need to say anything else?) To anyone with even a passing knowledge of low-budget horror, this should all be pretty apparent from the trailer. Kern, though, seems to be upset that she had to watch this when she could have been sharing a popcorn with Mr. Scott at "Wall-E," so she checked her sense of humor and her sense genre awareness at the door when she sat down to start writing.

Not even appearances by horror royalty — Angela Bettis (“May,” “Toolbox Murders”) and Tim Thomerson (“Dollman”) — can salvage this one.

Apparently, appearances by Troma all-star Will Keenan and half the cast of "I Know Who Killed Me," didn't set off any alarms that "Wicked Lake" might not be shooting for horror royalty status. Which is all quite a shame, because honestly, my guess is that that "Wicked Lake" is likely not that great, if not irredeemable. In her review though, Kern fails to engage this little ditty in any legitimate way, instead choosing to hold the movie at arms length and inject as much distaste as humanly possible into the seven sentences that her editors ran in the paper. There's probably some interesting things to be said about "Wicked Lake," but I'd suggest you look elsewhere if your hoping to find them.

Jon Schnaars

Writer/Podcast Co-Host/Business Guy

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