Horror films are often most effective when they reflect the viewers innermost fears back onto them. While fantastical villains like Freddy Krueger infiltrate the cinematic imagination, it is the monsters that capture the fears of the times that are the most fascinating. In Berkshire County there are two types of monsters roaming around, but identifying which one is more dangerous is the tricky part. The first are the conventional knife wielding masked individuals that are common in slasher films. Their methods may be crude, but they wear their bloodlust on their sleeves. The second is more sinister in its method of operations and can be found in high schools across North America…and most likely the world.
It is the latter whose actions ultimately carry the most weight, from a psychological perspective at least, in Audrey Cummings directorial debut Berkshire County. Taking place on Halloween, Berkshire County focuses on Kylie Winters (Alysa King), a teenager girl whose day has been so hellish that insane killers are the least of her problems. After discovering that an intimate moment with a fellow student, Marcus (Aaron Chartrand), at a party was both videotaped without her knowledge and posted online, Kylie finds herself the target of verbal and physical harassment from her peers. Worst of all Marcus does not seem remotely concerned about the damage his actions have caused. Finding no support from her own mother, who chastises her for getting into the predicament in the first place, Kylie wants nothing more than to curl up in a ball and cry the night away. Unfortunately for Kylie, she is already committed to a babysitting gig in posh, but secluded, Berkshire County.
At first the job seems simple enough: entertain the two children, Phoebe (Madison Ferguson) and Sam (Cristophe Gallander), put them to bed at the right time, and hand out candy to any kids that may show up at the door. Things take a dark turn for Kylie when a young trick-or treater, (Leo Pady), shows up accompanied by two mask wearing adults. As the masked individuals attempt to break into the isolated house, and with only a police operator named Roberta (Samora Smallwood) on the phone to help her, Kylie must do everything she can to survive the night.
Coming in a year where online bullying, via cell phone videos, has been a hot button issue in Canada and the world, Audrey Cummings’ film feels extremely timely. By playing up the notion that monsters are not found in the closet but in high school, Cummings adds a rich layer to the film. The fact that Kylie’s mind is focused on the ramifications of Marcus’ video more than the burly knife wielding criminal in the pig mask is quite telling. In many ways it is the social commentary regarding the online violation of young women, and the slut shaming that comes with it, that resonates more than the traditional slasher tropes the film employs.
Showing much promise as a director, Cummings effortlessly generates a nice sense of dread throughout the piece. The pig masks her villains use give You’re Next’s animal masks a run for their money in the cool, but disturbing department. Cummings does occasionally fall into the comfortable rhythm of convention a bit too much, especially in regards to the film’s seemingly multiple endings, but her ability to capture the pulse of what is terrorizing to modern teenage girls in undeniable.
Though Berkshire County does not shine much light on the killer’s history, which is a shame because it could have added a unique facet to the film, Cummings does get a lot out of her cast. Alysa King gives an effective performance in the lead role. She brings just the right amount of vulnerability needed to make Kylie’s plight compelling. Her transformation from fragile naive teen to a strong heroine feels natural. It also helps to have the likes of Aaron Chartrand providing a truly slimy performance as the arrogant Marcus. Chartrand is so convincing that one cannot help but pray that he gets some sort of comeuppance before the final credits role.
Berkshire County may not revolutionize the slasher genre, but it has a lot more to say from a social relevance perspective than many of its peers. Audrey Cummings displays much prowess as a director. She crafts a film that entertains while providing a little food for thought at the same time. Cummings effectively highlights that the real terror for teenage girls does not come in the form of mask wearing villains, but rather in cell phone carrying boys that prowl in plain sight.
Friday, November 28, 7 PM & 9:45 PM, Carlton Cinema