These days, it’s easier to sell a low-budget horror film than a thriller with no ‘stars’, so it’s not uncommon to see a thriller repackaged as a horror film in order to give it a chance in the marketplace. That’s almost the case with Reaper, which bears the hallmarks of a horror film but is actually a thriller with horror overtones.
When a freak power failure disrupts his execution by electric chair, the vigilante killer known as ‘The Reaper’ (Mike Michaels) – sentenced to death for leading his followers into a series of “killing parties” targeting “sinners” – escapes more than just death: he vanishes from custody, sparking a statewide manhunt.
Meanwhile, hitchhiker Natalie (Shayla Beesley) is picked up by heavy-drinking salesman Bill (Jake Busey). When his shitbox car overheats, the pair fetch up at the Last Chance Hotel, where – after a little light BDSM – Natalie seizes the opportunity to tie Bill up and steal his wallet, unaware that she is being watched by the creepy proprietor via closed-circuit cameras installed in the ceiling. Her motivation for the theft soon becomes clear: her mother is in sore need of an operation, and Natalie is eager to pay. Unfortunately, it seems that someone else wants to make her pay – for her sins.
At this juncture, twenty minutes in to Reaper, you might be forgiven for wondering where on earth Danny Trejo and/or Vinnie Jones have got to, given that their mugs are on the DVD cover (albeit unrecognizably). When he does turn up – as Rob, a hard man drug dealer with a Bowie knife – it is only to introduce his supplier, Brad (played by co-writer James Jurdi), whom Natalie quickly gets her hooks into, after deliberately knocking him down in her car. Natalie’s story really is the most compelling aspect of the film – she, not Jones and Trejo in monk’s hoods, should have been on the cover artwork – but when she robs Brad blind and takes off with his money, it’s Trejo (‘Jack’) who picks her up in his pickup, driving the story forward yet also backwards – to the Last Chance Hotel, where the creepy proprietor reminds them (as radio and television broadcasts have been, at regular intervals) that the escaped killer known as ‘The Reaper’ is on the loose. By this point, we’re half way through, and wondering… is this a horror movie at all?
To be fair, a good deal of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho was taken up with the exploits of a blonde thief who got her comeuppance in a fleabag motel – but that, needless to say, is where the similarity ends. A more apposite comparison would be Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), in which a convicted serial killer (played by Mitch Pileggi, later The X-Files’ FBI boss Skinner) survives the electric chair and goes on a killing spree in a shower of electrical sparks. Here, it takes a while for the sparks to fly – but when they do, Reaper finally flips a switch into all-out horror movie mode, as the residents of the Last Chance Hotel square off against The Reaper.
Directed by first-timer Wen-Han Shih (as Philip Shih), Reaper is by no means a classic, but it has a few things going for it. Shayla Beesley makes a convincing lead, Danny Trejo is on good form, and Vinnie Jones’ role is mercifully confined to a couple of scenes where he does his customary one-note “grimace-and-Cockney-menace” thing. There’s even a fairly badass movie monster in The Reaper, action figure ready and deserving of a better film.
REAPER is on UK DVD and available to stream or download from Monday at http://thehorrorshow.tv/movie-display/reaper-2014