In Alastair Orr’s Triggered, which was written by David D. Jones, a group of nine friends in their early 20s sit around a campfire in the woods. We’re introduced to their sharp banter, petty drama and frivolous gossip, but things don’t pick up until Erin (Liesl Ahlers) wanders into the trees to pee with privacy. While away from the others, she spots a shadow of a man who chases after her and successfully knocks her out. She wakes up to a painful head injury, blood dripping down her face, and a suicide bomb vest strapped to her chest — as do the others, who realise they were gassed.
In their fear and confusion, the man appears again and they realise it’s their old science teacher, Mr. Peterson (Sean Cameron Michael). “Tonight you’re gonna find out just how good of friends you really are,” he says. “Only one of you will leave the woods tonight — the one with the most time.” The group are then left on their own as their timers activate, all displaying different amounts of time. With no way of accessing their cars or getting the vests off, the friends descend into chaos as they realise they have no choice but to play Peterson’s twisted game.
This idea has been done to death, but Triggered provides an original hook with the vests and makes sure to provide a solid motive or two. At one point, a character references the Saw franchise — other films that force its characters into a disturbing environment to test the bounds of human nature when faced with their own mortality. In many of the Saw films, the characters realise too late that they all could’ve survived by working together, whereas Triggered is more like Battle Royale in that the last one standing wins.
The characters are all played by a group of relatively unknown actors who all possess the necessary charisma to deliver what’s needed of them. While most of the characters are shallow and uninteresting, the majority of them will be dead by the time the credits roll. However, the film does work to make us care for a select few — potential final girls and those trying to do the right thing — who go through promising character development. It’s also fun to watch the most vapid characters ditch their friendly personality and civil manners when they realise they can kill each other to steal someone else’s time.
With an already engrossing premise, tensions rise when we learn each of the friends are carrying a secret. For a short time, they think their friend Bobby (Michael Potter) is in cahoots with Peterson, which forces him to explain himself. “I’m gay, ok? I’m gay every now and again,” he says. The others are confused and ask how you can be gay “every now and again.” It turns out that Bobby is bisexual, but this knowledge can’t get out because it’ll ruin his life. On one hand, this was an amusing scene and it’s great to see a male bisexual character; on the other, while the film evokes horror of the 2000s, negativity attached to bisexual people in 2020 feels outdated. Even though this unfortunately still happens, it’s an easy cop-out for a secret, but thankfully there are better and darker secrets which are revealed in due course.
At its heart, Triggered is a dark horror comedy. There’s an abundance of one liners, mainly banter between friends, that are genuinely funny and made me laugh out loud more than once. Although not all jokes land, they capture the shared millennial-gen z mindset of using dark humour to cope with traumatic situations. The film is also a highly entertaining gore-fest. When the timers reach zero, the characters explode into a thousand pieces with blood, brains and guts everywhere in what are spectacular special effects.
In Triggered, everything unfolds as messily as the exploding bodies as these friends find out that they aren’t good friends after all. It’s hard to look away, as Jones’ cleverly written script is jam-packed with compelling action and drama, which is well-executed by Orr’s gripping direction. “Jesus, you’re all so annoying,” Peterson remarks to his old students at one point, and they really are. Sometimes you just can’t escape high school, but maybe you should — convenient friends aren’t going to save your life.
Triggered screened at the virtual edition of Grimmfest 2020 between October 7th and 11th
by Toni Stanger