Two months after Twitter launched, and just a few weeks after Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane ignited a bidding war at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, with Harvey Weinstein finally winning to the tune of $3.5 million. The Weinstein Company opted not to release the film—reporter Rachel Dodes detailed its circular odyssey, through two more companies and now back to the Weinsteins, in The Wall Street Journal—and seven years later, it finally arrives, with little but a crude flip-phone to date it. What’s always been mysterious about the film’s burial is that there’s nothing a horror audience should find particularly off-putting; on the contrary, it’s a sun-dappled ranch-house twist on the “horny teens in the woods” scenario that dominated the form in the 1980s. The short story appears to be: Bob Weinstein, the head of Dimension, didn’t like the present his brother bought him, used negative test scores to support his dislike, and sold it off rather than giving it a wide release.
Now that it’s arrived, there’s a timelessness to Mandy Lane that figures strongly in the film’s favor: It wasn’t responding to the trends in 2006, and if anything, the lush widescreen cinematography contrasts nicely with the cruddy found-footage digital that dominates horror in 2013. First-time director Jonathan Levine—who has since made The Wackness, 50/50, and Warm Bodies—made a slasher film that doubles as a commentary on slasher films, but does it so subtly that non-students of the genre won’t see the quotation marks. Specifically, he and screenwriter Jacob Forman fiddle with the madonna/whore complex that’s been punishing the sexually promiscuous since Halloween. Good girls live; bad girls die. But there comes a time when killing teenagers as part of a feminist thesis so closely resembles killing teenagers just ’cause that the distinction matters only a little.
Amber Heard stars as Mandy Lane, that obscure object of adolescent desire. First shown strolling the high-school halls to the gawping infatuation of young men and women alike, Mandy is a prime fantasy object not just for the way she looks, but for her well-broadcast virginity. In a clever prologue, one dumb jock even sacrifices his life in an effort to impress her. Nine months later, Mandy gets roped into joining Red (Aaron Himelstein) and a group of students for a wild weekend at his father’s ranch. The other two girls (Whitney Able and Melissa Price) are more morally flexible than Mandy, but everyone proves vulnerable to a killer on the loose. Suspicions naturally fall on their supposed protector, Garth (Anson Mount), a handsome ranch-hand with a scowl and a shotgun.
As the title suggests, Mandy’s allure figures into All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which could reasonably be interpreted as a critique of male aggression and possessiveness, and has the twists and turns to support it. But however smart its conceit or inviting its photography and music cues (from Bobby Vinton to The Go-Go’s), the film is still about dumb, vulgar, witless teenagers being led to the slaughter. There’s an overlay of gender politics, but it isn’t so firmly ingrained in the material that it transforms Levine’s throwback ’80s slasher film into a much nobler, more thoughtful endeavor. It’s hard to admire the architecture when the house itself is riddled with termites.