Congrats, Departing Seniors: Caps Off to Fresh Teen Slasher Picture Smartly Balancing Humor, Horror

First-time feature director Clare Cooney’s crafty picture deploys a well traveled formula—the vengeance-seeking high school killer—to entertaining results.

11 mins read

The eternally successful horror film genre has proven more profitable than perhaps any other given its dependably low investment, high-yield returns and passionate fanbase, always up for their next good scare. And while such scare pictures of late have taken a turn toward high concept, “elevated” deep-think frights, the box office for last year’s Eli Roth chiller Thanksgiving, carving up old school stalk and slash thrills, demonstrated that the simplicity of a lurking killer dispatching a murderer’s row of unsuspecting victims remains, as ever, the genre’s most cherished template.  

Devoted horror fans (and really, fans of good movies) will be delighted by first-time feature director Clare Cooney’s take on this time-tested staple in her smartly crafted Departing Seniors, which deploys a well traveled formula—the vengeance-seeking high school slasher, which hasn’t gone out of style across nearly a half-century—to yield something appealingly fresh. That formula, which launched legendary filmmaker John Carpenter and later commercially revived both the genre and its master, Wes Craven, could put Cooney on her way to a horror directing career should its distributor, Dark Sky Films, scare up a surely willing audience upon the picture’s February 2 limited theatrical and streaming release.

Independently financed and expeditiously shot on a reported shoestring budget of $300k (recall that Carpenter made 1978’s Halloween on a then $250k) from a snappy script by Jose Natera, Departing Seniors opens on a pre-credits, requisite killing—a masked madman slashes a bullying jock (Cole Steeves) in the school swimming pool—before pivoting to a senior class mourning his “suicide” while preparing for graduation, ten days hence. The academic setting, filmed largely in Chicago’s Sullivan High School, proves a hotbed of scholastic rivalry (potential English class final essays include problematic patriarchy and Melville’s homoeroticism) and strong-armed tyranny.

For queer, outside-the-in-crowd Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, A Good Person), this means unending taunts from the cool kids, a clique that includes rich bitch valedictorian and Regina George wannabe Ginny (Maisie Merlock), who struggles for perfection while fearing Mexican-American Javier will “affirmative action his way to (her) scholarship,” and the school’s big men on campus, varsity bro buds Trevor (Cameron Scott Roberts) and Brad (Sasha Kuznetsov). Brooding Brad also happens to be nursing his own clandestine “homoerotic undertones” with Javier.

Ignacio Diaz-Silverio (left) and Ireon Roach are best friends tracking a killer in Departing Seniors.

The fast and funny foil of this antagonistic student body is Javier’s wisecracking, protective BFF Bianca, superbly played by Ireon Roach (Candyman), mining comedy with nearly every line reading. After a nasty bullying episode lands her best buddy in the hospital and with a newfound ability for psychometric precognition (like “The Dead Zone,” she assures), the pair team up to interpret Javier’s increasingly foreboding visions of murder. But can they stop the school’s resident serial killer? And do their classmates really deserve to saved, particularly if they are toxic creeps? Peripheral to the mayhem is English teacher Mr. Yarda (Yani Gellman), flaunting hip cred as a Peruvian alt rock enthusiast to impress Javier, and potential romantic prospect William (Ryan Foreman), prone to flirting, Love, Simon style, across the school’s crowded locker corridors.

Natera and Cooney patiently build their picture with good humor and infectious camaraderie; the first half plays like a latter day homage to the sarcasm and satire of Mean Girls and Heathers while Scream waits patiently in the wings with a sharply serrated blade, striking in a handful of well directed murder scenes staged to appear as suicides. The killer, a knife wielding, black robed fiend in a theatrical comedy/tragedy mask, bides time before pouncing with classic Ghostface gusto. 

The final half-hour of Departing Seniors is supreme fun, parsing red herrings on the way to the climactic “senior lock in” and a Grand Guignol, school auditorium finale that is tense, well-staged and sharply choreographed, Clooney and editor Isabella McCarthy confidently cutting between the escalating slasher showdown and the amusingly misguided band room ambush of a potentially “murderous, trumpet playing Casanova.”

As a director, Cooney knows her way around both a scare and a joke, deftly interpreting Natera’s tonal flexes to lend Departing Seniors the often elusive, light touch balance that many a comic horror picture has routinely overplayed. She never tips too far into either direction, steering clear of the broad, crass hijinks and gore typically rife in many a shock-value thriller. This is not to say the picture doesn’t provide a big visceral finish (it does), but its denouement offers scares, (slightly on the nose) social critique and sweetness in equal measures. While the less said on this the better, it also provides one of the film’s choicest lines: “If you behave like an animal…you get put down like an animal.”

Not to be undervalued in Departing Seniors is the likability of the youthful Chicago cast. Where nearly all contemporary horror films are mortally wounded by perpetually over sophisticated, over-Insta’d, too hip teens without a trace of vulnerability (and even less likability), Cooney’s pair of intrepid protagonists are consistently fun to hang with and largely absent of the usual, too cool for school attitudes that plague most modern high school-set pictures. In this sense, her picture is a throwback to a slasher movie era where high school didn’t mean high concept and movie teens were content to merely be recognizably affable lambs to the slaughter.

Special mention goes to Gellman, who broke out in The Lizzie McGuire Movie and achieved horror film veteran status after appearances in Jason X and Urban Legends: Final Cut, doing nicely felt work as a young educator with compassion, sure, for his favorite student, but perhaps something more. And as closeted athlete Brad, Kuznetsov has a brief and believable contemplation of bravery (and one perfectly diffused by a laugh-getting teddy bear).

Given the milieu, Cooney’s picture can’t help but evoke such school-set 80s’ slasher staples as Prom Night and Graduation Day, but helmed by a contemporary female filmmaker does so with generosity (rather than mean spiritedness, on which the genre’s golden age was built) toward her young leads, both smart and resourceful. They also happen to be movie protagonist outsiders in sexual orientation and color, designations that in the genre’s earliest days would have made them the first slasher victims dispatched. Clearly, Cooney values Natera’s characters—particularly genre subverting “final boy” Javier, endearingly played by a comically exasperated Diaz-Silverio—as much as she does the picture’s scares, a marked reversal in a genre notorious for underdeveloped characters and over-designed effects. 

Cooney, the prolific actress (Rendezvous in Chicago, Relative, ChicagoMed) and filmmaker whose festival winning short films include the unsettling Runner, about a witness to a violent crime confronted with an unexpected dilemma, and After: A Love Story, which found a couple working through a life-changing trauma, proves a supple feature director, eliciting believable performances that convey friendship dynamics and the impacts of bullying, homophobia and peer pressure on identity, somehow without a trace of heavy handedness. Where her short films were models of acutely intimate introspection, she injects Departing Seniors‘ genre tropes with similar insight. On the tech side, credit goes to cinematographer Jason Chiu for the well-composed, widescreen scope lensing and to composer Denisse Ojeda for her appropriately eerie score. 

Departing Seniors is one for the horror fans. During her Oscar acceptance speech last year, Best Supporting Actress winner Jamie Lee Curtis took the opportunity to acknowledge her “tens of thousands” of genre film fans steadfastly carrying torches for her iconic, career-making horror performances (which she returned to in the recent Halloween redux trilogy), which paved the way for legitimate Hollywood to come calling. This Oscar callout moment mainstreamed longtime genre enthusiasts from the cult-fringe shadows, acknowledging a legion with a loyal reverence for intrepid, low-budget filmmakers who struck lighting, their equally legendary slashers and pluckily menaced ingenues, all of whom turn up at today’s horror conventions, attracting thousands of devotees hoping to meet-and-greet their favorite, enduring screen luminaries.

With Departing Seniors, something tells me Cooney and company could soon be in equally high autograph-selfie demand.

3 stars

Theatrical: Departing Seniors is playing at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on Friday, February 2 and Saturday, February 3. Tickets

VOD: Departing Seniors is available for streaming on Prime Video and other platforms. See options.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.