There is a school of thought within film theory circles that attributes the rise of the horror film as the latest in a long line of public contrition, a symbolic sacrifice for our communal sins. Instead of gladiators or public executions we have moved on to fictional and recreated scenes of sacrifice. A group of people dying on screen due to their disregard of generally accepted morals, premarital sex, drug use, etc. The problem with this theory is how reductive it is. At best, it shoves horror cinema within a dark corner of morality tale. At worst, it paints horror as some base, animalistic pleasure that we should be ashamed of. The biggest problem with this theory though, is when a filmmaker approaches their film within this narrow scope, when a film exists only to further that symbolic sacrifice. Forget story, forget character, we’re here to see the blood. In Mischief Night, a film by Richard Schenkman, the stockpile of horror cliche and tropes are all let loose on screen with no thought of how it effects story or character development. It simply throws the cliches fast and hard, from the “probably just kids” and “ did you hear that?” to the obligatory jump scares. And that’s just in the first ten minutes.
After those ten minutes of the standard “introduce the killer by killing-off meaningless characters” sequence the film settles in on Emily(Noell Coet), who is suffering from psychosomatic blindness and asthma due to some decade old guilt over her mother’s death. From there we find her staying in her home alone on “Mischief Night”, which is the national observance of egging houses apparently. At this point we have the set-up of girl alone in house which, of course, leads to home invasion. Again, so standard and cliche that any horror fan can probably guess the ending by the time she says “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”.
The blindness is the only real crinkle in this story. The added twist of a killer in your home that you literally cannot see is terrifying. Mischief Night, despite spending several scenes setting up her blindness and how that has heightened her other senses, doesn’t seem interested in this crinkle though. One might expect a modern “Wait Until Dark”, but unfortunately there are no cat and/or mouse games happening here. In true symbolic sacrifice fashion, Emily is here to be a victim and not much else. She can smell her boyfriend sneaking up on her, but a killer standing right in front of her somehow escapes her senses.
It must be said, however, that Noell Coet is doing her damnedest to make Emily compelling. In a surprisingly effective performance, she manages to add a layer of compassion for that character that the filmmakers seem to have no interest in. Despite that performance though, Coett is forced to do what the script tells her to do. And what it tells her to do is cry and whimper in the corner as bad things happen. Instead of a battle of wits, we get nonsensical sequences of events that all lead to that ultimate goal of cinematic contrition.
It’s not the fact that Mischief Night is shallow and superficial that makes it such a disappointment, however. It is the obvious moments of promise. With certain allusions to possible themes and story arcs, it becomes very disheartening to see those allusions continually ignored and abandoned. What could have been a fleshed out story of a girl dealing with grief and guilt becomes nothing but a scream session filled with vague intentions and no real resolution. While this fits in fine with the theory of horror film as symbolic sacrifice, it does little to make Mischief Night a good film.