Countless imitators have laid claim to being a throwback 80s slasher homage with an authentic retro feel, but “Lost After Dark” is the real deal. Letterman-jacketed good guy, leather-jacketed tough girl, stuck-up prom queen, and assorted stereotyped pals looking for a private place to party. Urban legend about a cannibalistic serial killer haunting an isolated farmhouse. Sure, you’ve seen movies like this before. And that is precisely the point “Lost After Dark” intends to play with.
In 1984, four teenage boys (Johnnie, Wesley, Tobe, and Sean) team up with four teenage girls (Jamie, Heather, Marilyn, and Adrienne) to skip out on the school dance, hijack a school bus, and find a remote cabin in the woods to get their wild weekend on. If you’re curious which four boys pair with which four girls, I would say think of the most well-known slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s and match each director with his Final Girl, except “Lost in the Dark” switches two of the couples for some reason. That longer variations of certain names are used instead of the more obvious John and Wes is the first clue about how the film’s homage nods reside in plain sight without being explicitly in your face.
The bus breaks down of course, and the only refuge around is a dark and spooky farmhouse, abandoned since a 1977 standoff ended with police slaughtering the notorious Joad family of cannibalistic killers. After seeing them sneak out of homecoming in hotwired high school property, vice principal Cunningham goes in hot pursuit of the troublesome teens. But so does Junior Joad, not as dead as the town thought, and none too pleased about trespassers on his family’s farm.
“Lost After Dark” is just one can of Tab and a Cosby sweater short of being filled to the brim with every 80s trope conceivable. The lone black kid sports a hair pick in his afro. The virginal Final Girl rocks a pair of Keds. Crimped hair, rotary phones, Rubik’s cubes, Reagan portraits: it’s all here. Someone even says, “life’s a beach.” Yet no matter how high the retro references pile, it somehow never feels like too much. Credit director Ian Kessner and his co-writer Bo Ransdell with striking the right balance between horror and humor to make a movie both charming and chilling.
The script’s tongue teases the inside of its cheek, but the actors never open their mouths to turn at the camera and wink. Because the cast, which is uniformly outstanding for young actors poured into familiar molds, plays the material straight, “Lost in the Dark” remains reverential to the genre while retaining only a subtle sense of humor. That sensibility is what makes the movie fun without being silly, spoofy, or over-the-top outrageous.
The presentation gets in on the act, too. Fogged film and clunky editing splices accompany reel changes. Dirt, hair, and scratches accent a grindhouse vibe. Yet once again, these gags last only long enough to prompt a quick snicker and a smile before overdrawing any undue “look at me!” attention.
As for the slasher element, the story is straightforward with intentionally predictable plot beats. Where “Lost After Dark” is unpredictable is in how it wreaks havoc on audience expectations by getting creative with the way it whittles down its roster. The teens are deliberately not killed in the order you think they should be, which might be a spoiler to mention, and that is how Kessner and company keep you on your toes in spite of following a specific formula.
Aside from a story that isn’t terribly deep, although it really isn’t supposed to be, the film’s only real drawback is an occasionally mistimed sense of pacing. Proceedings take their time getting off the ground (which granted, the movies being mirrored had a tendency of doing themselves), but there are also some dragging lulls in between moments of mayhem that could do with improved tuning.
Something that isn’t off however, is the timing of the movie’s arrival. “Lost After Dark” is a shot in the arm for slashers as well as for trendy meta-movies commenting on specific filmmaking eras. This is retro 80s horror done right, and done respectfully.
Even though it isn’t a comedy, the movie requires a sense of humor for full effect and maximum appreciation. If you’re of a certain age and of a certain mood, “Lost After Dark” is a perfect fit for any movie marathon featuring your favorite “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “Halloween” in the same rotation. Spike a pouch of Ecto Cooler with Captain Morgan’s, pop the top on a box of Bugles, and enjoy a fresh flashback to when horror was fun as well as frightening.
NOTE: There is a brief post-credits scene.
Review Score: 80