The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - THE RETALIATORS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - THE RETALIATORS

The Retaliators review
A pastor is offered a chance to avenge his daughter's murder.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Michael Lombardi, Bridget Smith, Samuel Gonzalez Jr

Starring: Michael Lombardi, Marc Menchaca, Joseph Gatt, Jacoby Shaddix, Katie Kelly, Abbey Hafer

The Retaliators poster

My film chums and I have this glibly pejorative phrase which we use as a shorthand when referring to the sort of landfill horror systematically churned out as content for streaming services: a ‘Shudder Film’. While this isn’t entirely fair to the specified platform (with its often superb original movies and creatively curated heritage selections), the cap sort of fits. A Shudder Film is that movie which is lazy, a paint by numbers horror whose ambitions extend no further than inhabiting genre frameworks and going straight to a digital service where it will be dutifully consumed by horror audiences, the most greedy and habituated of all audiences. You know, the sort of film that people who went to FrightFest rave about in the moment, but which seems, well, a bit ordinary when the rest of us get to watch it months later, as it unceremoniously surfaces on Prime or whatever. Recent exploitation effort The Retaliators (directors: Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Bridget Smith, Michael Lombardi; screenplay: Darren Geare, Jeff Allen Geare - perhaps more films should apply group efforts) did actually debut at FrightFest as it happens, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on Shudder, either. However, allow the pedigree, as a ‘Shudder Film’ The Retaliators ain’t.

The Retaliators review

Not that you’d guess from the opening sequence, which, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, depicts a couple of young women in a van getting lost in some backwoods, to be eventually terrorised by what appear to be zombies, while a nu-metal soundtrack anachronistically throws a tantrum on the soundtrack. If you caught this on a streaming channel, the trite typicality of the opening would be enough to make you opt out and continue scrolling for something better. But that scroll would be in vain. Because, despite the basic tenements of its opening salvo, The Retaliators turns out to be a genre joy, an absolutely mental cornucopia of violence, gore and sentimentality which is so authentically kitschy that it hits you both in the heart and the gut.

Part of The Retaliators’ consistent charm is created by the mad, unforeseen narrative elements it nonchalantly delivers. The so-so nature of the opening may well be a double bluff, part of the shifting, mercurial nature of this complete one-off (those zombies? You will never ever guess what they actually are). Accordingly, in the next scene we flash back to a small c conservative American town where dad John Bishop (Michael Lombardi - rumpled Freddie Prinze, Jr) is a pastor and dad to two daughters, a teen and a tween. The family are in mourning following the death of mum some years earlier. Talk about a gear change: the lighting here is the flat bright of a sit-com, the mise-en-scene pure Xmas telly movie, the mood gentle melodrama. We see the family get into a minor scuffle with Dante from Clerks when out purchasing a Christmas tree: an awkward skirmish which Pastor Dad duly incorporates into his evening service later which everyone in town, young and old (except Dante), seems to turn up for. The service also has a performance from a nu-metal band (production company Better Noise Films is an imprint of clues-in-the-name Better Noise Records music label). They play, the congregation calmly and happily watch, and then the Pastor carries on with a quip about turning up tomorrow with blue hair as if an aggressive rock combo playing a church service is completely normal. Watching in a state of artificially induced relaxation, I laughed so much I almost spilled my wine!

The Retaliators review

And I laughed over and over again throughout The Retaliators. But, crucially, never at the film (well, not much - although for British audiences a vengeful pastor warrior being called John Bishop is accidentally hilarious). How could anyone make fun of a film this sincere, this devoted to entertaining and surprising its audience? The first major shock is an especially cruel death of somebody we’ve been positioned to accept as a major character, to whom the film has ascribed goals and established potential for development (although this killing is, admittedly, ruined by the marketing). The death especially hurts because, zombie opening notwithstanding, until then The Retaliators has just felt so warm and, well, lovely. Talk about being lulled into false security (genuinely, at one point watching the screener at home, such was the genial sugary tone of the film that I wondered if one of the cats had pawed the remote control when I was unbeknownst topping up my Pinot Noir, happening upon an entirely unrelated movie).

All bets are off from then on in. Within 20 minutes of The Retaliators the audience has been presented with three distinct genres (zombie mental, Hallmark channel, hardboiled noir): something for everyone. And the energy doesn’t let up - the momentum of the film, and its aspiration, is laudable enough. How it’s pulled off is a pure pleasure, because, in The Retaliators nothing pans out as you may expect. After the shocking denouement of the first act, Pastor Dad, following a period of delicately and effectively portrayed grief, makes like King Solomon and fixes to deliver a brand of personal vengeance. Or, again, does he? Look, The Retaliators is no theological treatise, but the transition Pastor Dad makes is never straightforward, complicated as it is by his religious beliefs and entrenched in interesting character work (and the film did movingly remind me of the strength some people are able to draw from their faith), all of which gives The Retaliators’ revenge trajectory a twist more interesting than the usual binary pattern. Likewise, the recurring images of men, both goodies and baddies, in confined spaces smashing their fists in useless aggression against their surroundings (a car interior, a phone booth), is an intriguing leitmotif of frustrated masculinity, which is in turn consolidated by the implied impotent rage of its goatee metal rap soundtrack (it’s probably no spoiler to say that the victims in the film are women, and the titular acts of retaliation are catalysed by male principles of honour and duty).

The Retaliators review

As we go on, the film builds to a climax which is extremely gory, with joyfully sustained bodily trauma as callously mad as it is cathartic (and in terms of storytelling the deliberately bad taste of which efficiently juxtaposes the genteel Bedford Fallisms of the opening). If the entire film had essentially been the last act stretched, with its proficient genre thrills, then frankly, that would have been enough: enough for the increasingly low expectations of us as fans, and for the limited parameters of the ‘Shudder Film’. But The Retaliators never once rests on its laurels, not in terms of its innovative narrative, or its unconditional focus on both compelling and startling whoever is fortunate enough to be watching it. Is The Retaliators the best film of the year? Don’t be silly. It’s probably not the best film this week. Yes, tedious pricks may point out the sporadically ropey acting, the sheer unlikelihood of what unfolds, and so on: bore off. As, for genre connoisseurs, the inventive hyperbole of The Retaliators could well make it the one of the most comforting and enjoyable films not just for this week or for this year, but for the ages.

The Retaliators is in cinemas worldwide from September 14th.

2022 movie reviews