Slashers are rarely a hard sell. Find a group of teens, plonk them in the woods and send a raving maniac after them with something sharp. It’s horror at its simplest and most entertaining. Even the bad ones deliver enough fun and catharsis to almost always satisfy a hardcore genre crowd. In fact, these days, nearly half a century on, most are very deliberately derivative. It’s part of the charm. Sure, the good ones – those that understand the careful chemistry of horror and comedy – stand head and shoulders above the rest. But ultimately, a body count is enough.
So to stand out and do something genuinely different with the genre, as Lithuanian director Jonas Trukanas and his team do here, isn’t just brave – it’s also what some would call “stupid”. Subverting expectations is a dangerous game after all, especially when those expectations are as closely guarded (and celebrated) as the slasher movie bible. You can almost hear the frustrated cries of American distributors: “Just give them what they want!”
Luckily for Trukanas and co. though, they not only pull off their unusual, Trojan horse of a horror beautifully, they set something of a new standard too. Why be satisfied with the same thing over and over, when you can still deliver those familiar beats, but quietly pull the rug out from under your audience at the same time?
Pitched as the very first Lithuanian slasher movie, Pensive starts much in the same way as many of its American ancestors; a group of high schoolers looking for a party. Socially invisible teen Marius (Sarunas Rapolas Meliesius) swoops in to save the day, when his graduating class are left high and dry without a house to host their huge end of school blow-out. Naturally, there’s one small caveat though; the place Marius swindles from his real estate agent mother is a creepy little remote cottage, where an entire family burned to death. And it’s littered with sinister looking statues, hand carved and very deliberately placed.
It doesn’t take long for the drunk teens to start tearing them up. And, in even less of a departure from the expected, a scary wooden-faced man soon descends on the group, and starts well and truly cleaning house.
Like the best of its ilk, Trukanas and co-writer Titas Laucius’s script is wise enough to build an incredibly firm foundation of teenage drama first. The film’s opening act could stand alone without the killings that follow, and nods nicely to the Kevin Williamson school of “teen movie first, psycho killer horror second”. And while it does initially feel like just that – window dressing for the main event, Trukanas proves otherwise; his focus rarely wains from his characters, soon neatly veering off the beaten path into something muddier and more vicious.
Because as the hulking, Voorhees-esque killer gets creative, the camera slowly starts to peel back, backgrounding it all in a very stark, unsettling turn. The onslaught becomes shockingly blunt. Much like the killer’s entrance, there’s very little in the way of ceremony here; no begging or pleading or drawn out torture sequences. No tension-building beats, or nail-biting, hiding-under-the-bed-style jumps. Just a large man butchering an entire class of teenagers, one after the other.
The lack of pomp won’t be to everyone’s taste; despite its strap-line and opening gambit, Pensive isn’t really a crowd movie. Especially as the focus starts to veer away from the death and destruction altogether, playing much of it off-screen to zoom in closer on Marius instead. So much so that by the third act, a much heavier-hitting drama takes the lead, with a very different kind of horror creeping in around the sides, and Trukanas’s film is all the stronger for it.
It might well be one of the first slashers from the Baltics, but Pensive has a lot more in common with the tricksy, genre-bending techniques of its European siblings, over the more straightforward Western, commercial movies its marketing might be chasing. While it certainly never leans fully away from a brutal kill, it’s ultimately much more interested in an even darker off-shoot to its teen drama, and with that in mind, comes highly recommended to those looking for something beyond the simple horror nuts and bolts.
Pensive screened as part of FrightFest Glasgow 2023.