Review: ‘Shortcut,’ starring Zak Sutcliffe, Zander Emlano, Jack Kane, Sophie Jane Oliver, Molly Dew, Terence Anderson and David Keyes

October 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Keyes, Molly Dew, Sophie Jane Oliver, Jack Kane, Zander Emlano and Zak Sutcliffe in “Shortcut” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Shortcut”

Directed by Alessio Liguori

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural area of England, the horror flick “Shortcut” features a predominantly white cast (with one African American and one person of Asian descent) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Five teenagers and a driver in a school bus are kidnapped by a serial killer and then get trapped in the woods while an unknown gruesome monster is on the loose.

Culture Audience: “Shortcut” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching silly and very derivative horror films.

Zak Sutcliffe and David Keyes in “Shortcut” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The horror flick “Shortcut” is the type of movie that could be an unintentional comedy if it weren’t so dull and uninteresting. This poorly written and shoddily directed movie rips off and waters down so many tropes and scenarios that have been done before in so many other horror movies. The main thing people will remember about “Shortcut” is that the horror starts when a school bus gets stuck in the woods in an unnamed part of England. Most of the acting in the film is substandard, and the movie’s very thin plot is stretched to the breaking point with too many credibility problems that weaken what’s supposed to make this film terrifying.

Directed by Alessio Liguori and written by Daniele Cosci, “Shortcut” does a terrible job at explaining why the characters are in the woods in the first place. And most of the characters have generic and forgettable personalities. Even the monster in the story isn’t particularly interesting, especially if you’ve seen any “Alien” or “Predator” movie.

For the first 15 minutes of the film, all viewers see is a school bus of five teenagers (who look about 15 or 16 years old) and the bus driver while the teens goof around and talk to each other in the bus. The only indication that the teens go to school together is a sign on the bus that says S. Peter International School.

At the beginning of the bus trip, the time of day is around sunset. Are they being driven home? Are they being taken somewhere else? Viewers get no answers to those questions. All that’s shown is that they are being driven through a very isolated wooded area. All of the kids have British accents, except for the driver, Joseph (played by Terence Anderson), who is African American.

A newscast on the bus’ radio says that a lunar eclipse is expected that night. And the eclipse is supposed to be “the longest and most fascinating of the last century.” Don’t bother expecting this extraordinary lunar eclipse to be an important part of the movie’s plot, because the characters spend about half of the movie in an underground tunnel. It’s one of many examples of how sloppily the screenplay is written, because many things are brought up in the movie that are never explained or there are missing pieces of the story that should be there but never are.

The personalities and backstories of the main character are also unevenly written. Of the five passengers on the bus, there are only two who have distinct personalities: Reggie (played by Zak Sutcliffe) is a gum-chewing rebel who’s the type of brat who sits in the back of the bus and makes sarcastic and rude comments to everyone. Karl (played by Zander Emlano) is a chubby and goofy guy who likes to crack jokes, but he’s usually very annoying to the people around him.

Karl has an obvious crush on Queenie (played by Molly Dew), a smart and nerdy type who makes it clear that she’s not interested in Karl. Queenie is apparently so smart that her classmates have given her the nickname IQ. However, later in the story, there’s no real sign of Queenie’s supposed intellect, because the movie lazily follows the stereotype that a generic male is going to take charge and come up with the ideas that are supposed to save everyone.

The bland character whom the filmmakers chose to be the eventual leader of these teenagers is Nolan (played by Jack Kane), who is the movie’s narrator, but he doesn’t say much while they’re on the bus, because he appears to be a loner. And then there’s Bess (played by Sophie Jane Oliver), who is the most vaguely written character of the five teens. Just like Nolan, Bess doesn’t really interact with the others until the group has to band together to survive.

The only character whose backstory is shown is Reggie, who eventually opens up to the other teens when he shows them a photo that he keeps of himself and his father. Reggie tells his schoolmates that his father is in prison. He explains that his father was a “patsy” who was “set up” for a crime that led to his conviction and imprisonment. The families of the other students are never described or shown in the movie.

The bus ride is fairly uneventful for the first 15 minutes of the movie. If the movie’s screenplay had been written better, that time could have been used to give viewers some more insight about who are the people on this bus. Instead, the time is wasted on meaningless banter that goes nowhere.

The bus encounters some large fallen tree branches and an abandoned aerial work platform that are blocking the road. And so, the driver makes the decision to take a detour in another part of the woods. The detour is supposed to be a shortcut, but this is the part of the movie where you know it’s where the characters are going to be in danger. As if it isn’t made obvious enough, the camera shows the hand of a dead body poking out from underneath some nearby shrubbery that the people on the bus don’t see.

As they drive along in a darker, more isolated part of the woods (and as fog rolls in), the people on the bus encounter another road blockage. This time, it’s a dead deer. Bus driver Joseph gets out to remove the deer. As he drags the deer carcass off into the woods, there’s a sound of a gun click.

The next thing that viewers see is Joseph is being held at gunpoint by a deranged-looking, middle-aged man, who orders Joseph back on the bus and takes everyone on the bus hostage. In yet another example of how bad this movie is, the kidnapper doesn’t seem to have a plan for where he wants to go. He’s just holding these people hostage and telling the bus driver to keep driving. He also orders everyone to throw their phones out of the windows.

Karl suddenly has a flashback memory to a recent meal he had at a diner with a man who is unidentified in the movie but whom viewers can assume is probably Karl’s father. During the meal, the man has a computer tablet on the table that shows a news story about how a serial killer named Pedro Minghella (played by David Keyes) has recently escaped from prison. Karl’s dining companion says that this serial killer “eats tongues” and “seems to love teenagers.”

Karl immediately recognizes that the kidnapper on the bus is Pedro. As the terrified kidnapping victims are driven further into the woods, day turns into night, and viewers see that the bus passes a semi-hidden sign that says “Military Zone” in Italian. It explains the type of bunker-like tunnel that the teens end up in later in the story.

Suddenly, the bus conks out and the engine can’t be restarted, despite many attempts. A furious Pedro orders Joseph to fix the bus and threatens to shoot Queenie if the bus isn’t fixed. Joseph tries in vain to repair the bus, but he says the problem has something to do with the engine, which he can’t fix because he doesn’t have the tools and parts.

Things get more tense when a dark, cloaked figure suddenly appears in the middle of the road. This strange creature is really the monster in the movie. And what happens? One of the most tiresome clichés that happen in horror movies: The token black character gets killed first.

After killing Joseph, the monster disappears into the woods. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Joseph is murdered first because his death is the reason why the teens no longer have any adult protection for the rest of the story. The monster is so terrifying that even serial killer/kidnapper Pedro seems to be scared.

And this is where “Shortcut” goes off of the rails in stupidity. After witnessing the horror of Joseph getting murdered by the mysterious creature, Pedro then orders one of the teens to retrieve the bus keys from Joseph’s dead body. Bess volunteers to do it. Keep in mind that the reason why they’re all stranded is because the bus engine won’t start. Therefore, the keys are useless.

Perhaps in a panicked state of mind, Pedro thinks that somehow getting the keys will magically make the bus start again and they can escape. But that doesn’t happen, and they’re all stuck in the woods with a monster on the loose. The fate of Pedro is easily predictable. and the rest of the movie shows the teens on their own, trying to figure out how to survive.

They end up in a vast underground tunnel that conveniently has plenty of candles and torches. The movie’s continuity is horribly structured and often makes no sense. In one scene, the kids are in the dark tunnel with only Nolan’s flashlight to guide them. In the next scene, they’re suddenly in a room filled with enough lit candles to make it look like they’re about to have a séance. Viewers have to assume that the kids found the candles and lit them, but it’s just all too conveniently and unrealistically set up.

And then there are some bizarre, out-of-place moments, such as in the middle of this race to save their lives and trying to figure out what to do, Karl takes two sticks and starts pretending that they’re drum sticks, while he air drums for several minutes. The other teens are irritated by Karl’s cavalier attitude toward their dire situation. And viewers will be annoyed too.

Karl is yet another stereotype in this movie filled with horror stereotypes: the overweight guy who’s supposed to be the comic relief. The teens figure out that the monster is afraid of light, so they try to keep their underground bunker as well-lit as possible. But then there’s the problem of how to kill the monster or get away from it.

At this point in the story, Nolan (who was fairly nondescript on the bus) suddenly becomes a take-charge leader who comes up with almost all the ideas that he thinks will get the teens out of their predicament. Queenie, who’s supposed to be the smartest person in the group, is sidelined by the filmmakers and is reduced to being someone who’s too scared to contribute much to the group’s life-saving efforts.

Queenie becomes so fearful that she begs someone to accompany her when she needs to urinate because she’s afraid of going anywhere by herself. The person who ends up accompanying Queenie is Reggie, who makes her feel uncomfortable when he pretends that he’s going watch her urinate, as she asks him repeatedly not to look. And the ending of the movie has more than a whiff of sexism because it makes all the females look passive, helpless and incapable of doing any heroic things that the males do.

The movie’s overt sexism isn’t the only example of the outdated mindset of the “Shortcut” filmmakers. The entire movie is a ripoff that takes ideas from horror films of past decades and does nothing clever or new with those ideas. When a horror movie is bad, it helps if it’s campy, in order to make the film amusing to audiences. But the limited humor in “Shortcut” is misguided and falls very flat.

Everything about “Shortcut” is formulaic and inferior to other B-movies that can take a simple concept and make it interesting with all the right elements. The only thing that “Shortcut” gets right is the movie’s title, which could describe how this vapid horror flick bypasses anything resembling a good story.

Gravitas Ventures released “Shortcut” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is on December 22, 2020.