The term ‘downrange’ is a military term referring to a combat zone. It’s an apt title for the Ryuhei Kitamura horror-thriller that merges survival horror with slasher film sensibilities. Downrange debuted last September at the Midnight Madness event of the Toronto International Film Festival. Earlier this week, the horror-streaming platform, Shudder, made Downrange available for horror fans.
Downrange is a lean film with a straightforward premise. In the film’s opening moments, six college students on a road trip suffer a blowout along an isolated stretch of country road. They quickly learn the blowout was no accident. A sniper perched hidden in a tree along the road has targeted them, picking them off one by one. As the day stretches on and their numbers dwindle, the students must make a desperate bid to survive.
Maximum Tension from a Minimalist Approach
With its simple premise, Downrange wastes little time getting things rolling. Director Kitamura has fun teasing the audience in the opening minutes as characters stand out in the open and pace the roadside after the blowout. You’re given a few minutes to guess which character will be the first casualty, knowing it’s coming sooner or later. Whether it’s survivors trying to put their car in neutral in order to roll and use it as cover or an unsuspecting family driving into the ‘downrange’, Kitamura manages to wring out several suspenseful sequences from his minimalist concept.
Of course, with such a simple premise and its single location setting, Downrange can’t avoid having a few dull stretches. The film’s middle-act drags at times and, in these moments, the lack of character development hurts some of the momentum and tension in Downrange. Fortunately, these lulls are pretty brief and while there isn’t much in the way of character development, Kitamura still manages to create a few emotionally poignant moments. Watching a boyfriend collapse after being shot and falling side-by-side with his dead girlfriend is the kind of brief touch that adds enough of a human element to elicit some empathy for the killer’s victims.
Downrange Goes For the Jugular
There’s a lot of violence in Downrange and it’s filmed with a gloriously gonzo inventiveness.
Few recent horror films can boast the same ‘take no prisoners approach’ that Kitamura adopts in Downrange. There’s a lot of violence in Downrange and it’s filmed with a gloriously gonzo inventiveness. The first two kills are stretched out to maximize the shock – the sight of of one character pulling her hand away from her face to reveal a gory hole in her eye socket is particularly disturbing. Bullets leave gaping and mangled bloody holes. Blood spurts from wounds in bright red splashes. A rolling car crushes a head with brutal, colourful detail. Overall, the gore effects in Downrange are outstanding and among the best in any horror release so far in 2018.
Downrange’s blood and gore is also accompanied by a wickedly perverse sense of humour. When the sniper shoots the gas tank in a family’s car, it’s not enough to just blow up the father – he has to stumble into the road, burning alive. A dehydrated survivor has their hand shot as they try and grab a bottle of water. And Kitamura forgoes any perceived horror film rules about the characters that audiences may believe are off-limits or safe.
A Few Plot Contrivances Weigh Things Down
More than a few plot contrivances and horror film tropes crop up in Downrange. Cellphones work intermittently, if at all, which while possible seems more than little convenient for the one-note plot. The police are incompetent and useless, serving to only increase the film’s final body count. These convoluted story bits culminate in a climax that’s a little too over-the-top for a film that’s strength was its threadbare approach. Kitamura falls into the ‘superhuman killer’ trope when the police arrive, a move that really wasn’t necessary for the film to work.
…the final moments of Downrange offer a clever and funny twist …
All that being said, the final moments of Downrange offer a clever and funny twist, though some viewers may groan. In addition, Kitamura seems to have sneaked in some commentary on gun violence with his twist ending. A scene where the camera lingers on blood covering the handle of a rifle with superimposed flashbacks of the film’s victims may ring a little hollow given how much Downrange revels in its own grotesque images.
A Perfect Survival Thriller for Horror Fans
Regardless of its lack of compelling characters and short stretches that drag in the middle, Downrange is a delightfully tense, bloody thriller with a sick sense of humor. Kitamura is a dynamic, stylish director and he films his violence with a flair that’s missing from a lot of horror films. As the weather starts to warm up, Downrange is the perfect survival-themed thriller for horror fans who appreciate more hardcore films.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+