Red Pill, from Tony award-winning actress turned director Tonya Pinkins, premiered at the Pan African Film Festival this month, and might just be the first horror film to attempt to tackle the 2020 US election.
The film follows a group of Democrat supporters heading into “red” territory in Virginia to canvas white women voters (attributing to the now famous statistic that 52% of white women voted for Trump in 2016) for their liberal cause. Having rented a house for the weekend the weary travellers are not put off by the wooden sign at the town limits saying ‘no n******, no Jews, no immigrants’ and decide to press on so they can at least get a good nights sleep. Arriving at the house they are surprised to find the interior decor questionable, heavy on the red accents and animal imagery. They also feel like they are being watched. Cassandra (played by Pinkins herself) is the first to sense Bad Vibes, when a scene shows the Democrats’ car driving through the town to large amounts of white women standing outside their picturesque homes in black and red clothing, silently watching the approaching strangers. Cassandra heads up the group and questions everything about the town, the house and the strange locals; her concerns are regularly —and foolishly, dismissed as paranoia.
The group of six is made up of a mix of white people, African Americans and immigrants which should open the film up to critique much of the anti-Black, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric prevalent (but of course not originating from) the Trump presidency. Unfortunately, this group of city-dwelling Boomers are at the behest of hefty scenes of dialogue that solidify the exact kind of liberal whining and #firstworldproblems that often end up discrediting left-leaning campaigners on global media outlets. Overall, the group are more concerned with feng-shui and Kumbaya-ing than they are with dismantling systems of oppression through voter engagement.
The campaigners quickly become trapped in the house as an unprovoked attack proves that they — and their politics — are not welcome in this Virginian town. Masked women (quite stylish to be honest, gold leaf masks, gowns and camo are quite the change from boiler suits and ripped workwear) prey upon the house picking off inhabitants one by one.
Red Pill really goes from 0 to 100 real quick. It does a great disservice to Pinkins’ script that we never actually see the group out canvassing. There is no engagement with “the other side” before blood is being spilt. Its a weak backbone for Red Pill’s key ideas when we never see the two opposing political ideologies meet on an intellectual level, only a violent one: the nuance is simply not there.
That isn’t to say that nuance is the only successful way to approach both politics and race relations in horror —The Purge series and The Hunt certainly make political statements in more of a brash and accessibly fun manner— but Red Pill is unsure of its placement along the line of chaotic and lawful. It begins as a lowly slasher movie with sprinklings of political discussion and ends in an all-out eugenics story where The Hunger Games meets Midsommar, so campy and wild it becomes very entertaining in its outlandish-ness. The kills vary between uninspired and visceral, some harkening back to days of lynching and other race-based violence and others simply a murmur.
It is clear that Pinkins had a solid and contemporary idea for her debut, and the impact of her being one of very few Black women directing horror feature films is not lost. The script ultimately needed some refinement; to pick a side between insidious, under-the-skin horror or campy gore-fest (which can just as equally convey an important social issue). Perhaps with a few more years experience in a feature director’s chair, Pinkins will have a confident voice and vision to give horror another stab.
Red Pill premiered at the virtual edition of the Pan African Film Festival 2021
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She works as a teacher in the GLAM sector and freelances as a costume designer and maker living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.