Mike Gan’s ‘School Spirit’ breaks the model minority illusion but is held back by overused horror cliches
When you get down to it, Mike Gan’s “School Spirit” is a story that we’ve all heard before. A combination of the we’re-not-so-different-after-all cloyingness of The Breakfast Club, and the teenage debauchary of many a teenage horror movie (Friday the 13th, etc), it’s a film that won’t turn too many heads from the premise alone. The only noticeable difference from the get-go? This time around the lead actress is an Asian American. Though that one factor might be interesting enough to separate “School Spirit” from its predecessors, it unfortunately still remains a film that lacks overall pep.
Executing two brutal murders right off the bat, the film follows lead actress Erica Yang (Annie Q) as she attends detention for the first time. A model straight-A student, senior class president, and overall perfect role model (she has her eyes set on Harvard, of course), Erica’s arrival intrigues the other, more regular members of detention (Corey Fogelmanis, Jessi Case, Julian Works, Philip Labes, and Jordan Austin Smith). Overseeing them is the villainous vice principal Mr. Armstrong (Hugo Armstrong), who has both a major alcohol problem and a ridiculously over-exaggerated temper. But of course, rounding out this cast of characters is the mythical “School Spirit,” a school urban legend that—in classic horror film fashion—is all too real.
Although “School Spirit” updates the slasher formula by adding modern day references (sex, alcohol, and vaping lead to some of our characters’ demise), there’s not much here that brings anything new to the table. Even the kills, which usually invite creative opportunities, are played safe and mostly kept off-screen. The paper guillotine scene, which is the only kill that preys on the fear of already-frightening everyday objects, is the most memorable in how gruesome it is (someone definitely sharpened that blade beforehand). The other scenes are largely forgettable.
There’s also unfortunately a lack of scares from the film’s eponymous monster—the large, heavily costumed, ghostly mascot. There’s not much signifying the school spirit’s scare factor other than the fact that we are just supposed to be afraid of it since it’s a supernatural creature. One scene in particular that stands out is when Erica and Lizzy encounter the ghoul in the hallway, with each group on either side. With the help of some dramatic strings, the spirit slowly walks its way over to the girls (almost excruciatingly slow, I might add) as the two scream and panic. It’s moments like these that hurt this film the most—instead of building up suspense, the spirit exists just to be screamed at. Though it’s a cool character concept, the execution of its fearful power is lazy. In comparison, Mr. Armstrong with his blatant corruption and law-breaking demands make the spirit seem more like a secondary villain.
But even with all of the film’s flaws, its portrayal of Erica is the sole reason why this film might be worth watching. She’s a realistic character, and one that has been sorely absent from mainstream media for years despite, well, so many Erica-types of people that you’ll encounter throughout high school or college. While Erica seems like the preppy, Harvard-bound leader, there’s a darker side to her that’s fueled by overbearing Asian parents, pressures from society, and even pressure from herself. During the climax of the film, Asian American teenagers will cheer at Erica’s words—it’s a monologue that solely exists to subvert expectations. If anything, “School Spirit” is used as a vehicle to break the model minority myth within a new context—even more than it does present a lukewarm horror film.
Since it’s a film that is a part of Hulu and Blumhouse Productions’s horror television anthology Into the Dark, there’s no telling how much overall control that Gan was given to make his vision a reality. Maybe the film started with the concept of Erica but petered out when it came time to fill out the rest of the film. Having said that, there’s some solid acting from its main characters, but “School Spirit” uses too many cliches to make it stand out. Erica, like she does in the film, commands all the attention… sticking with you long after the credits roll.
“School Spirit” is streaming now on Hulu.
Film pages: IMDb