Cinequest 2019: Red Letter Day

You can tell this is Canada because for the most part, everyone is so polite about killing each other. A slasher film of manners, Red Letter Day sets up with a clever opening sequence: a barefoot man runs down the street in pajamas and a robe, desperately breaking into mailboxes to remove red envelopes that have already been delivered. It doesn’t go well for him.

Each of those envelopes contains a letter with a name and a photo. That person lives within 5 kilometers of the recipient, and was selected based on social media activity. They, too, have a letter, that contains the recipient’s name and photo. And both letters have the ominous instruction, “kill them before they kill you.” There’s no threat of consequences if you don’t except, of course, that you might get murdered.

Every household member on social media gets the letter — and so Red Letter Day focuses on the Edwards family, a newly single mom and her two teen-aged children. New to the neighborhood, they’re recovering from a recent divorce. High school student Timothy (Kaeleb Zain Gartner) doesn’t quite laugh the letters off, though his target is a “creepy bald guy” (technically, it’s a combover).

Daughter Madison (Hailey Foss) tears hers up without reading, too focused on angst and her older boyfriend Luther (Roger Leblanc). For mother Melanie (Dawn van de Schoot), the whole thing is just weird, because her letter contains the face of one of her best friends. Surely they can just talk it out.

Because it quickly becomes clear that this quiet community of Aspen Ridge takes these letters very seriously. The police are overwhelmed with panicked calls, and as the day progresses, it seems like emergency services have broken down. And all those nice people in their nice houses with the nice lawns on those quiet streets? Well, it’s still fairly quiet, but the murders do begin.

Writer/director Cameron Macgowan has set up a disturbing premise, and uses violence judiciously. When the blood spatters, it’s sudden (and if that’s your thing, satisfying), but Macgowan focuses on conversation. It’s not just about how well you know your neighbors; it’s also about how well you really know the people you think you’ve known your whole life. Occasionally, the dialogue carries more than its fair share of exposition. You may grow impatient for the next conflict. But Macgowan’s direction still keeps things moving.

Throughout Red Letter Day, there’s some social commentary. The assignments have come through a group much like the strangely quiet Anonymous, here called “The Unknown.” While social media isn’t exactly the villain, the faceless hackers have certainly leveraged it for mayhem. They’re also home-made, and throughout the film, there’s the implication that the sudden moral freeing of the red letters has inspired others to join the Unknown.

It feels a little Purge-like, but again, much more polite. Most people try to keep the chaos behind closed doors. If Macgowan chooses to pursue a sequel, he may be done with the Edwards, but certainly has built enough fertile ground for a wider scope. This doesn’t have to be the last Red Letter Day.

Red Letter Day screens Thursday, March 14 in Redwood City and Friday, March 15 in San Jose. For more information about showtimes and to purchase tickets, click here.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. You can buy his book "I Was Flesh Gordon" on the Amazon link at the right. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.