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Red Letter Day

2019, Starring Dawn Van de Schoot, Hailey Foss, Kaeleb Zain Gartner, Roger LeBlanc and Arielle Rombough. Directed by Cameron Macgowan (TANDA Productions, Awkward Silencio).

From tax shelter slasher outings to modern grindhouse homages, some of the best and scrappiest Canadian films have made their marks by taking a broader filmmaking trend and giving a unique local twist. Red Letter Day, a 2019 horror satire from Calgary Underground Film Festival programmer Cameron Macgowan, has drawn comparisons to Blumhouse's The Purge franchise, as neighbours are pitted against each other in a deadly game orchestrated by shadowy online provocateurs. But the deadpan skewering of suburban paranoia and a series of wild gore gags help Red Letter Day pull away from the pack while still touching on some distinctively Canadian preoccupations.

(In the interest of transparency, note that Red Letter Day producer/cinematographer Rhett Miller has contributed reviews to this website.)

Recent arrivals in the quiet neighbourhood of Aspen Ridge, divorcée Melanie (Dawn Van de Schoot) is trying to adjust to a new suburban lifestyle with her teen kids, Madison (Hailey Foss) and Tim (Kaeleb Zain Gartner). As they consider what to do for the day, they discover three red envelopes stuck in their mailbox—one addressed to each family member. Melanie is first to open her letter, which explains that she must murder one of her neighbours—in this case, her close friend Alice (Arielle Rombough)—before they act on their own letter and kill her. Tim discovers he's matched with an older local oddball, while Madison refuses to open hers at all, chalking the whole thing up to a cruel prank. With the police not taking things seriously enough, Madison and Tim start following outbreaks of violence on social media, with an anonymous masked group called The Unknown claiming responsibility for the events. Soon things start to get personal—Tim discovers his red letter nemesis lurking outside in the bushes, while Melanie's visit to Alice to reassure her goes awry when a kitchen knife is discovered in her purse, having been slipped there earlier by an over-cautious Tim. As misunderstandings and malice turn suburban paradise into a nightmare scenario, Madison disappears and Melanie and Tim discover who's really responsible for the brutality.

Red Letter Day is an often engaging—and even funny—look at our increasingly polarized reality, and what could happen without the safety of politeness and civility to keep our more impulsive survival instincts in check. Sporting a refreshingly clean and bright look, the film earns some points with throwback horror fun, including a series of  well-executed practical bloodshed effects and a cameo from Tiffany Helm from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985). It's a low budget film, so although we do get a glimpse of other neighbours trying to murder their matches, Red Letter Day struggles a bit to show the full scope of the violence that is supposed to be taking place, using social media montages and news reports in an attempt to help enhance the film's world.

But what really makes the film worth a look is the clever timeliness of the high-concept premise. Melanie notes early on that the letters have matched them with neighbours with contradictory beliefs, based on their internet search histories. Playing on fears of heated political rhetoric spilling over into real life attacks against perceived adversaries—something that has happened more in recent years, following the murder of protestors at in Charlottesville, the Pizzagate shooting and other events marking a general rise in far-right violence especially in the United States. While Canada has had its own share of disturbing political violence and angrily clashing opinions—especially in Alberta, where the film was made and is plainly set— Red Letter Day's depicted descent into ideologically-bred brutality may also play on fears that we won't be able to escape the same political chaos that threatens to swallow the United States. As Tim notes, "I knew this kind of shit was hidden beneath the surface—I just figured most of it was in the U.S.”

For Canadians, who often profess a deeper commitment to civic duty, Red Letter Day presents an especially disturbing scenario in which we are not only pitted against our neighbours in a political fight for life, but also that this rivalry could mean that, when push comes to shove, there may not be much difference between us and our "less mannered" global neighbours.

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