Courtesy of Shudder
Jay Baruchel debuts his sophomore film RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, side-stepping from the usual Apatow-esque comedic fare he’s usually associated with and diving straight into horror with this Canadian offering. According to interviews, this is something he’s been aspiring to do for a while now, and it’s obviously coming from a place of deep love for both comics and horror cinema.

The film stars Jesse Williams as Todd, a writer and artist whose comic series, “Slasherman” is the number one R-rated title on the market. “Slasherman” is inspired by the I-90 murderer, who went on a killing spree between 1987 and 1991, leaving a legacy that’s haunted the 200 mile stretch of road in upstate New York ever since.

Todd and his partner, Kathy (Jordana Brewster) join Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and Aurora (Niamh Wilson) for a road trip along I-90 in search of inspiration, hoping to find an appropriate ending for the comic. It’s not long before their presence in the area riles up the locals, and the brutal killings begin again.

As one might expect from Baruchel, there’s an air of lightheartedness, with snappy dialogue and bright cinematography, but it’s not long before the brevity gives way to a more sinister tone. RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE is framed by the tried and true “teens on a road trip through backwoods America” structure, complete with a creepy, antisocial gas station attendant who would make even the most hardened traveler second guess their journey.

It’s odd seeing the cast, who are largely nearing their 40s, operating under the classic teens-in-peril trope, but for the most part, they make it work. Williams is appropriately intense, and Brewster does her best as his empathetic counterpart. Baruchel, perhaps the most lively of the onscreen characters, is unfortunately underused, and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve criticized a director for underusing themselves. But sure, he was busy doing other things, like making the film look good.

Jay Baruchel, Jordana Brewster, Jesse Williams, and Niamh Wilson in RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE

In its first moments, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE could be mistaken for Creepshow, with comic book dialogue boxes, and bright colors. It manages to look slick despite the budget constraints. Baruchel bathes the proceedings in sickly greens and deep reds, recalling more colourful horror flicks of the 80s. At its core, this is a slasher, and on that level alone, it’s one of the better genre entries in recent times. Not that it has much competition, to be fair, but it has a fresh enough angle to carry it along for fans.

Baruchel doesn’t mess around when it comes to the violence, with some decent practical effects fueling the deaths, but ultimately RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE is less about the onscreen mayhem than it is about the message. At the beginning of the film, Todd (and by proxy, Baruchel) pits himself against the critics’ expectations. He (and Baruchel) want to say something through their work but are obviously scared that their audience won’t get it.

Todd’s “Slasherman” is looked down upon for its exploitation of violence. When Todd appears on a radio show to promote the comic, things get awkward as the interviewer shoves the picture of a young victim in his face. Todd is criticised for glorifying the killer, whereas Kathy, in seeming opposition, is working on her own project, looking to interview the victims’ families and give “a voice to the voiceless”. She wants to remember the ones who died, rather than exploit their deaths.

On the surface, Baruchel seems to be saying something about pop culture’s role in real-world violence, but his message comes across as confused within the framework of a slasher. Who is he criticising here? Himself for wanting to make RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE? Or is it a defense? The ending doesn’t make it clear. Perhaps some more time to develop would have helped, as it wraps and cuts to credits around the 75-minute mark. A deeper exploration of the characters’ relationships and conflicts of their ideology would have been appreciated.

While not entirely successful at achieving what it sets out to do, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE may appeal to slasher fans but will struggle to reach too far beyond that niche audience. Baruchel clearly has a passion for this kind of thing, so maybe he’ll hit a little closer to the mark on his next outing, wherever that may take him.

RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE will be available to stream via Shudder on August 20, 2020. *Users can sign-up for a 30-day free trial for new members with promo code SHUTIN on Shudder.com*

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