Calgary Underground 2019 Review: RED LETTER DAY, Fear And Loathing In The Canadian Suburbs
"I just figured this would be happening in the US."
One of the characters early on in Red Letter Day elucidates the sometimes subtle (sometimes not) passive-agressive smugness in the Canadian attitude, as defined by self-comparison to the American experiment down below. Chaos and murder erupt, between so-called normal people, when a shadowy anarchist group, called The Unknown, mails out a series of letters - red paper, in bright red envelopes - to the residents of an upscale Calgary suburb.
Everyone, child and adult alike, in Aspen Ridge receives one, which has the picture and address of someone they are urged to murder ASAP. The intended victim has a mirror letter asking the same: kill them before they might kill you.
At first, single mom Melanie Edwards, and her two teenaged children, Madison and Timothy, laugh it off with bad jokes, and facile sarcasm about nobody knowing anyone in their so-called 'planned community.' They, as would anyone, turn to social media to see what is going on. Memes already abound. It seems like the Red Letter phenomenon is a thing. A call to the police, and a very long hold-queue, add some additional worry; they all point to signs that the supposed prank should be taken seriously.
Melanie's letter has the only neighbour she spends any time with as her target (or targeter). A quick walk up the street and cup of tea with her friend (new baby and husband in the periphery) starts off well enough: "These Facebook algorithms are really getting out of hand!." And yet, it is not long before the breakdown of any semblance of the (admittedly fragile) social contract goes out the window, along with a freshly roasted chicken and the husband's right arm.
The blood flies fast and free for the remainder of Cameron MacGowan's get-in and get-out quick, debut feature. It plays like a 'Sunny Ways' modern mash-up of David Cronenberg's Shivers* and Fukusaku Kinji's Battle Royale.
Keeping the tone less on suspense or horror, and more on the unusual mix of satire and comedy, MacGowan ostensibly makes a pass at the (all too easy) target of the 'isolated manicured reality' of the suburban experience, but deep down, Red Letter Day's satirical daggers go after all of Canada, and civilized society. I wonder if he has seen his fellow Calgarian Gary Burns' cheeky mock-doc, Radiant City, as it would make an interesting double bill here: two radically different approaches to circling human nature through urban planning and genre.
Clearly, the tiny budget of the film keeps the scale within the Aspen Ridge community (and anonymous trolls on the internet), but that doesn't stop the blood and assorted creative maiming: a knife to the face and ensuing strained conversational shaming amusingly recalls Timothy Dalton's miniature village fate in Hot Fuzz. The characters here might be a little thin, it's a slasher movie of sorts, but this is somewhat made up for by filling in the details of the idiosyncratic denizens of the subdivision as we go, with Heavy Metal rockers, walkers of cats, and Kevin Smith doppelgängers hovering on the margins. Cory Feldman's Ricky Butler would be be smiling.
Taking place entirely in broad daylight amongst the ticky tacky boxes and perfect-circle cul-de-sacs that circle our cities, most of them less than one hundred kilometers from the USA border, Red Letter Day tells us something about ourselves. While Canadians may not 'gate' their communities, and feel better about ourselves for our diversity and inclusiveness, and certainly consider themselves more or less immune to the culture of fear and intolerance that we see in American news media and apocalyptic television, we have our own unique ways of failing to live up to the ideals of being a good neighbour.
There are no heroes here, we also tend to cut the tall grass before it can put on airs.
*Fun-Fact: both Cronenberg's Shivers and Red Letter Day were made when a Trudeau was Prime Minister.