The Tripper (2008)

The Tripper first published by

“A hippie is someone who talks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” So reads the text that opens The Tripper. It is a quote from Ronald Reagan, on whose nickname (‘The Gipper’) this film’s title puns – and Reagan, and his antipathy towards any perceived brand of delinquency or anti-establishment attitude, will cast a long shadow over the events to come.

Like all good slashers, The Tripper begins with a primal scene. It is 1967, in Northern California. Impressionable boy Gus watches a disarmingly graphic TV news report about Vietnam and the ‘evil’ of war, as his mother lies ill and bedbound in the next room. Reagan, then California’s Governor, is also on the television, railing against the environmentalist movement. Gus’ father Dylan (Redmond Gleeson), a local logger, is conducting his own war with a group of countercultural tree huggers determined to prevent him from doing his job and earning enough money to pay his wife’s medical bills. There is an altercation, Dylan is arrested, and disturbed little Gus, his head full of Reagan, ends up taking a chainsaw to one of the hippies.

Skip several decades (including Reagan’s Republican Presidency) to the Noughties. Another Republican, George W. Bush, is in the White House, and Reagan himself has been dead since 2004. Six young friends head in a van to the woods – the selfsame woods where Dylan had his confrontation with hippies 40 years earlier – for the American Free Love Festival, a gathering of drugged-up kids reviving the hedonistic spirit of the Sixties while eschewing its politics. Yet politics will catch up with them anyway, in the form of a suit-wearing, axe-wielding warrior in a Reagan mask who is on a mission to kill hippies.

You know the drill. As soon as you have met Sam (Jaime King), the heroine with the unisex name who says no to drugs and who is established early on as being decidedly kick-ass, you can guess who the final girl will be. And despite the minatory, red-herring presence of hippy-hating ‘redneck pigfuckers’, of Sam’s creepy, clinging ex Jimmy (Balthazar Getty), of aggressive local weed farmers (including Dylan), of an authoritarian cop (Thomas Jane), of a crooked mayor (Rick Overton), and of a cynically profiteering – and deeply unfunny – festival organiser (Paul Reubens), you’ll have no trouble working out who the killer is. The fact that this is the directorial debut of David Arquette (who also co-wrote), and features a cameo from none other than Wes Craven himself, might lead viewers to expect the sort of self-conscious postmodern meta-slasher material that was so prominent in Craven and Arquette’s previous collaboration Scream (1996), but in fact The Tripper plays its genre tropes entirely straight, and without any added self-reflexive gestures.

What does distinguish The Tripper is the way it figures Republicanism – and more specifically the spectre of Reagan – not only as the greatest threat to fun-loving, pill-popping co-eds, but also as a facilitator of psychopathic urges. Along the way, the film tracks the way the counterculture has changed from a politicised activist movement to an apathetic, sybaritic orgy of psychotropics and sex. Meanwhile, Reagan’s reactionary War On Drugs has transformed into Bush’s aimless War On Terror. Accordingly, we have a new kind of killer who shares Reagan’s disdain for hippies, but also blithely tries to murder anyone else who gets in his way, including paintballers, the police and even like-minded Republicans. Here, ultimately, Reaganism is a force that destroys the whole community – not that our generation of peace-loving hippies comes off as particularly sympathetic either.

By the end, though, the film’s politics have become so muddled that the only thing remaining is the perfunctory slice-and-dice of a bog standard slasher. Ideology, presented here in the broadest of strokes, is just another grotesque mask to be donned and discarded at will – or a trip to be taken until the effects inevitably wear off. What’s left is altogether more banal and ordinary.

Summary: David Arquette’s debut is a so-so slasher elevated by its unexpected (but eventually overworn) political mask

© Anton Bitel