We’ve met lovers like Jules and Mickey before in movies like Badlands, Natural Born Killers and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde. They are partners in crime, metaphorically and literally, kicking off Villains with a smash-and-grab robbery that’s given a bit of flare by the animal masks they choose to wear. As they dash off in their getaway car, Jules (Maika Monroe) excitement translates into titillation, and she’s all over an elated Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) as he drives. But their plan to hightail to a beach and easy living hits a snag when they run out of gas.
Along a remote road they find a big house the couple hop to break into, steal a car for and escape. But Villains, and this isn’t high praise, becomes Badlands meets The ‘Burbs when this criminal couple stumbles upon a horrid secret in the basement of this precious suburban home. Panicked, they encounter the freshly returned homeowners, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick). And what follows is a twisted comedy barbed with horror and splashed with blood.
At the jump, Villains is instantly enticing. Mesmerizing horror stars Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgård (IT) team up to shake up their images. There’s nothing haunted or Pennywise-style menacing about Jules and Mickey, even as they crash through the lives of others with a giddy abandon. At their core throbs a love, like, and lust for each other that fuels them. And unlike their cinematic siblings, they don’t seem dangerous as much as reckless. Danger enters with George and Gloria. Dressed like they just stepped out of a chipper 1950’s photo spread, she carries a bundled baby and he brandishes a friendly tone as they calmly confront the hapless home invaders. This breeziness is immediately unnerving, and not just because of what lies in their basement.
Written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, Villains delights in playing against audience expectations. It sets us up with a Bonnie and Clyde pair who burst with wild charisma, sex appeal, and youthful audacity. And even as they invade a cozy home, the film urges us to root for them. Which becomes easier once George and Gloria show their true colors. Beneath their chipper sweater sets, prim smiles, and brown-sugared Southern accents, these two hide dark hearts and twisted souls. Meanwhile, beneath their tough and trashy façade of tongue-piercings and scraggly mustache, Jules and Mickey are the film’s brave and big-hearted heroes. Beyond that, these couples play like fun house mirror versions of each other.
In monologues about her long lost girlhood, Gloria recalls how George promised her a world of adventure that would be all theirs. It’s easy to imagine carefree Jules following a similar path of crime and carnage, as the two women share far more than blonde hair, but also an insatiable thirst for bad boys and a less life ordinary. And while George’s actions are monstrous, his intentions come from a place of unshakeable devotion to his partner, a loyalty to which Mickey can no doubt relate. In short, these pairs are perfectly matched. So when their respective survival depends on outwitting the other crafty con couple, things turn sick, vicious, and sometimes laughable.
Speaking of being perfectly matched, Donovan and Sedgwick prove sensational scene partners to Monroe and Skarsgård, creating an ensemble that is devilishly fun to watch. Monroe and Skarsgård bring a chaotic enthusiasm that plays well into the film’s broad comic tone, whether they’re bickering, bonding, or spitting blood. Meanwhile, Donovan and Sedgwick play their characters so big that they almost feel like ghoulish cartoons. But that’s no complaint. Donovan sinks his teeth into heinous threats and middle-class subterfuge, while Sedgwick dives headlong into camp with a dizzying hyper-femininity, perplexing strip tease, and hissed revelations. It’s the kind of ghoulish comedy offered in such dementedly entertaining movies as Death Becomes Her or She-Devil. So why does it feel like there’s something missing that’s keeping Villains from being on their level?
The premise is intriguing. The parallel is promising. The performances are gamely bold and playfully deranged. Yet Villains left me underwhelmed. While it’s funny enough, it never made me laugh; while there are scenes of suspense, I was never tugged to the edge of my seat; while some bits are scary, I never screamed. The whole thing felt too muddled in tone to manage any of that. Villains itself seems, yes, scared to go for the jugular. For all their clever ideas and casting brilliance, Berk and Olsen fell short of giving their horror-comedy the edge it needed to make Villains as exciting as its potential.
Villains played as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies Film Festival. It hits theaters September 20.