While the late Wes Craven’s original horror masterwork Scream has always cast a long shadow over the genre with its gleeful snark and genuine fear, the Netflix horror Killer Book Club has made what feels like a largely humourless reimagining of that. It is written and directed by Carlos Garca Miranda and centres on a group of eight college buddies who all adore horror and are shortly pursued by a masked killer clown who appears to have personal knowledge of a terrible tragedy that links them.
When she and her pals start receiving chapters from this clown of a horror narrative that replicates what they accomplished together, with the promise that each addition will result in one of their deaths, they’ll have to figure out who is doing it before they’re all gone. The primary character is aspiring horror writer ngela (Veki Velilla), who may be the key to saving them all because of her extensive understanding of these stories. Unfortunately, she is unable to save Killer Book Club from itself.
To its credit, the film distinguishes itself slightly in what it pulls from, since its guessing game largely refers to the group’s mutual love of horror literature rather than filmmaking. Early discussions in their classes and the titular club they’ve founded to explore horror will make light of genre clichés as well as the genre’s prominence in the public imagination. The problem is that, whereas other contemporary horror films, such as birth/rebirth, are razor-sharp reimaginings of classic stories, Killer Book Club is content to just toy about within the boundaries of what other great works have previously done.
No matter how many times the film draws attention to some of the genre’s rehashed themes or warns about the pitfalls of depending on contrivances, it all feels like lampshading for it to then do all of this itself. Whereas Craven was able to twist the familiar into both funny and terrifying twists, Killer Book Club portrays the same sort of constructed plot its protagonists criticise, but without any sense of humour to make it feel self-aware.
A conversation in a class early in the film turns to the nature of borrowing significantly from prior stories. A student justifies this as fan fiction, in which you rework something that already exists and make it your own. When the chapters of the clown’s narrative are completed, they are posted on a website dedicated to sharing similar experiences. This sort of pretty open recognition of what the film is doing is OK since it is also the closest the picture gets to more effectively referencing back to itself.
Fan fiction writing is an intriguing process since it allows you to explore new narrative and thematic areas. It merely means that if you’re going to effectively rewrite a narrative, as one character says, you have to walk a more difficult tightrope because you have to guarantee you don’t fall back on the structure of the current stories while pulling from them to produce something new. Killer Book Club never does this consistently or ingeniously enough, and everything feels strangely played out from the start. There are flashes of gore, but there is no courage underneath it.
A trip to the library to investigate what is going on? Yes, why not? A turbulent past is revealed in the opening scene before flashing forward to the future. Of course not. A masked assassin with a trademark weapon who might be any of the characters? Go for it, but don’t expect this recycling of genre cliches to succeed just because you smile at the camera. Killer Book Club attempts to bring this into the present day with social media, influencers, and how they have transformed our relationships with one another, but it feels more like lip service than anything sharp.
Whereas last year’s Influencer gave more than simply an imitation of an online style to address the loneliness and liberty of the Internet, this horror is all blood and no heart. When everything feels strangely chilly, it’s difficult to care about the identity of the masked killer or the destiny of the people. The whole movie feels like we’re seeing a work of empty imitation that never manages to create something worth emulating on its own.
All of this would be forgiven if the ending was more incisive or startling. Instead, without giving anything away, it feels precisely like Scream, without the more successfully performed fear. Even the one surprise it does provide feels like a parody of those films. The fact that we have a concluding monologue noting how it is not just a very lacklustre finish while also choosing to spell everything out emphasises how lifeless everything was. It comes across as a forced dump of information rather than exhilarating or cathartic.
The fact that it then insists on going on and on way past a legitimate ending point makes you wish it would just finish soon. It does so to playfully suggest an undeserved sequel, but it comes off as more of a threat than a really tantalising tease for more. Killer Book Club, for all the legendary horror stories it alluded to, never tells a memorable one of its own. The actual clown show is the film itself, no matter how many meaningless escalations and confrontations with the killer it goes through.