Joseph Kahn’s Detention is a hyperactive horror/comedy whatsit whose skeleton is composed mostly of 90s junk culture and Wikipedia rabbit-hole feedback loops, held together with a gleeful, naked embrace of artifice, cliché, and pastiche. As such, the film trades in a very specific kind of sugar-rush post-postmodernism that tears through ideas and gags and plots at breakneck speed not for the sake of commentary, but because why the hell not, it’s fun as hell. If Scream, a movie Detention naturally references more than once, used the audience’s movie-buff baggage to deconstruct genres and tropes and turn them on their ears, Detention flattens and explodes them instead, lifting and warping cues from everywhere, even itself. It’s not enough for Detention to quote Scream, it also quotes itself quoting Scream. The result is a gleefully fizzy piece of meta-fiction that uses the high school slasher as a framework to play a 93-minute-long hard-mode game of Mad Libs.
Plot is of little consequence in this film. It has a plot, but it’s more like the abstract concept of a plot, or the deconstruction of a deconstructed plot, where a masked killer picks off high schoolers before prom in a small-ish suburban town. Following suit, the characters might as well be mannequins with archetype names scrawled in thick Sharpie block capitals on their foreheads. But their utter lack of depth is made up for in sheer blunt-force loquaciousness. The main pleasure of the film is seeing these actors engage in hyper-stylized verbal sparring matches that sound cribbed from 20 years’ worth of You Don’t Know Jack titles. The “make a bunch of pop culture mouthpieces talk each other’s ears off” gambit doesn’t work for every movie, but Detention sustains its effervescence throughout not only because it doesn’t stay in the same place for too long, but because the movie around the script is game enough to keep up.
Detention’s bull-headed dedication to the arcane reference is matched only by its freewheeling approach to narrative development. It thinks nothing of suddenly introducing characters half-way through the film, or launching into a flashback sequence, or making hard left turns into science-fiction territory every ten minutes. Text is layered onto the screen in every way imaginable, whether actually diegetic or not, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-one opening credits sequence/litmus test. One remarkable sequence sees the protagonists watching an illegally downloaded workprint of a sequel to an in-universe horror movie where someone watches a cheesy horror-themed porno starring Ron Jeremy in order to figure out a copycat killer’s next move. At one point, there’s also a bear who gets abducted by aliens and can travel though time. The film has the same sense of casual surrealism and cartoonish self-destructive tendencies as Adult Swim’s graveyard block (Off the Air, Infomercials), where no cultural ouroboros is too outlandish to cut to, from, or into.
In the wrong hands, every element of this film could have been severely mishandled, leading to a potential tonal nightmare. Thankfully Joseph Kahn, best known for his music video work, gives the movie a fully slicked-up, spit-shined feel. His camerawork is as busy as the actors’ mouths, keeping up as the movie pinballs from idea to idea. There’s a gripping mix of hyper-realism and charming CGI fakery on display, where too-pretty sunsets and airbrushed skin coexist with CGI blood and mid-grade sci-fi effects. Kahn’s key skill in this film is integrating the hyper-real and the uncanny into a single cohesive whole through artifice and polish. Remnants of Kahn’s day job pop up everywhere: long dolly shots, soft lighting, lens flare, gratuitous but stunning power shots. In many ways, Detention is a long-form movie using the visual grammar of short-form video; more fractured, more abstracted, more restless, more vital, more colourful, more dense.
Detention is a stunning feat of tone-juggling, dedicating heroic amounts of energy to barreling forward while constantly threatening to come apart at the seams. It’s equal parts goofy meta-genre workout, bizarro cult readymade, and jarring fun-house mirror. It’s jam-packed with stuff from top to bottom, its mayhem being fully calculated and streamlined for maximum density. The film feels like a Thomas Pynchon novel processed through the sensibility of an eccentric college freshman who just read Benjamin and Beaudrillard for the first time while binge-watching the first three seasons of Community. It stands to reason that this film is not for all sensibilities, but those for whom it is will wave its flag high and proud.
Detention is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. It’s also streaming on Netflix Instant (as of 2/8/2015).
Directed by Joseph Kahn; written by Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo; starring Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell, Spencer Locke, Aaron David Johnson, Walter Perez, Dane Cook, Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, and Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park; 93 minutes.