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Review: School’s Out Forever – “Shallow, stilted and unremittingly grim.”

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Here’s the trailer for Schools Out Forever. The marketing team have done a good job. It’s kinetic, fast edited, and it has relentless, upbeat music. It has humour. With hindsight, the trailer is fair. It doesn’t try to sell the film as something it’s not. However, on first viewing, the film appeared to be a kind of blackly comic horror/thriller romp. Brits are great at such films, especially on a low budget. Check out Severance (2006) for example, or Cockneys versus Zombies. Terrific fun.

Keeping fairly in mind during the review that this was a complete misreading of the trailer, what is this? The film is based on the first of a trilogy of novels by Scott K. Andrews, who also co-wrote the film with director Oliver Milburn. Its most obvious inspiration is Lord of the Flies, but film-wise it also recalled If… and Red Dawn.

Beginning with the film’s hero, Lee (played impressively by Oscar Kennedy, who looks not unlike Eddie Redmayne but in this role gives a more natural, less mannered performance) being expelled from the private school he attends on scholarship, we quickly learn there is a pandemic. Yep.

With tasteless garbage like Songbird getting released last year in an apparently naked attempt to cash in on the misery of COVID-19, one must question the decision to release this now. True, the book it’s based on was released in 2007, and standard IMDB doesn’t make it clear when production started, so perhaps it’s just unlucky timing, but the early images of bodies littering the streets don’t sit well. There’s certainly an argument that in 2007 Andrews was using fiction to add his warning to the inevitability of what we now face, but here it is hard to shake off the trailer. Like it or not, this film is being sold as entertainment. Host showed how to make a topical but entertaining film in 2020. Sadly, that is a rare exception so far.

The pandemic in this movie affects victims dependent on blood type. Anyone with O negative blood type survives. Doesn’t sound like a particularly efficient or effectively mutating virus, but still. After his father (Steve Oram, a brilliant actor who like Anthony Head makes barely more than a cameo) succumbs, Lee’s military mum, serving abroad, tells him to get back to school. At this point, the real plot begins. As is usual in these kinds of dystopian stories, things get a bit more serious than handbags over bog roll, and the school is soon facing off against a heavily armed parish council. Jackie Weaver can’t be everywhere at once, you know.

Simultaneously, a power struggle ensues within the school itself, and the film marches towards a violent conclusion. Said violence, when it comes, is competently executed. Milburn comes from a career in visual effects, so the various deaths (including face versus garden fork, neck versus javelin and neck versus chair and the weight of a large teenager) are convincing. However, there’s a sense of walking an uneasy line in the story that is echoed in these images. There is occasional humour here. A pun involving a raid on a supermarket made me chuckle, but the fact that it’s delivered by Alex Macqueen, an actor who is consistently hilarious in Pulling, The Thick of It and The Inbetweeners gives the impression that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they’re aiming for. It’s great to see him showing his range in a more serious role, but like that trailer, his casting implies that they wanted to make more of the humour but aren’t sure how. So is the case with the executions (essentially what they are). They’re bloodthirsty but bloodless. Gory but not visceral, not affecting. It appears the director was unsure whether to aim for slapstick gory violence in the spirit of Evil Dead II, or something very serious and mindful of the fact that these are teenage boys both inflicting and receiving said violence. It feels to me that Milburn would be better served by tackling something along the lines of the horror comedies mentioned above for his next feature and letting rip because here, the story seems to be holding him back. Having said that, the action scenes are woefully stilted. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by increasingly slick, dynamic, and fast-moving action set pieces by talented directors continually pushing boundaries, but there is an unfortunate pattern here. Some action happens; the characters stop and exchange gormless, blunted dialogue; repeat. I’d call that dialogue expository too, but it would be redundant. All the dialogue in Schools Out Forever is expository. There’s one throwaway attempt to develop character when Lee tries to snog the school nurse, and sure, his character does have to make a choice as the story concludes, but it’s obvious, ham-fisted and ends in an exchange between him and another key character that is simply witless nonsense.

The story is certainly the weakest aspect of this film, and not having read the book I don’t know if the laughable punctuation of the action scenes happens in the same way, but a more experienced director would have dispensed with them and found more interesting ways to move things forward.

The books are quite popular, apparently, so hopefully, fans will enjoy this. At one point it seemed that maybe the story was an allegory for the Brexit divide or the decamping of humanity into baying internet mobs who have lost the ability to communicate, but if that is so, it’s clumsily handled and doesn’t go anywhere. And again, given the novel came out in 2007, it’s unlikely.

The acting from the kids is impressive throughout, particularly the leads (although none of the others have remotely developed characters). The adults are good too, it’s nice to see former Miss Moneypenny Samantha Bond back on screen. Cinematography and sound are competent. Some of the scenes of empty streets and motorways are effective, but unfortunately, nothing that hasn’t been done better before in superior films.

Ultimately though, it’s empty. It’s shallow and pointless. If you want depth… well, go back to If… or better yet the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies. Actually, just read the book. If you want action and excitement, you are spoilt for choice. There is nothing in this film to justify sitting through the grimness, particularly during a real pandemic. Frankly, I’ve had more fun recovering from major eye surgery. Avoid.

School’s Out Forever releases on digital download on 15th February and DVD & Blu-Ray on 12th April.

For more of my ramblings, check out FiskFilm or Medium.

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