Departing Seniors

Departing Seniors (2023)

Departing Seniors had its world première on Mon 28th Aug at FrightFest

“You wish that all those fucking assholes would die horrifically gruesome deaths via telekinetic vengeance,” Bianca (Ireon Roach) tells her BFF Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silveiro). “At least in Carrie all the high school assholes get what they deserve, right?” 

Bianca’s words carefully situate Clare Cooney’s feature debut Departing Seniors, whose very title does not refer to the dying off of the elderly, but to adolescents in their final week of high school before they head off into the big world beyond – although some of them will be departing in a different way, falling victim to a masked slasher who makes their deaths look self-inflicted. For this is a film about bullying and and its repercussions. Jocks Brad (Benjamin Czaplewski) and Trevor (Cameron Scott Roberts) and Trevor’s girlfriend Ginny (Maisie Merlock) relentlessly target Javier whether because he is smart, Hispanic or gay – take your pick – although he gives as good as he gets, viciously humiliating Ginny for her stupidity (even thought she is less stupid than lazy and entitled) with help from his new admirer William (Ryan Foreman) in the English class run by Mr Arda (Yani Gellman). And even as Bianca encourages Javier at least to fantasise about his persecutors’ deaths, they really do start dying one by one. Javier may not, like Carrie White, have powers of telekinesis to help him execute acts of enraged vengeance against his enemies, but an accident does trigger in him latent hereditary psychometric abilities that allow him to foresee his peers’ deaths. 

Yet perhaps the real point to Bianca’s explicit evocation of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) is to show that Departing Seniors, written by Jose Nateras, is teen horror of the postmodern variety, full of characters who themselves watch scary movies, like in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) – also referenced here when Bianca (twice!) alludes to the masked killer as ‘Billy Loomis’. Other explicit intertexts include Henry Hathaway’s The Witching Hour (1934), David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – but perhaps the strongest influence here is Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988), not just because of the multiple teen murders disguised as suicides, but also because of the prominent part played by a copy of Moby Dick, and a general tone of dark humour.

Perhaps that humour is best emblematised by the mask – a split face, half tragedy, half comedy – stolen from where it hangs on the school’s Drama Club poster board and worn by the killer. For all these young people are staging their ambitions and rivalries, their differences of sexuality, race and class, and their final confrontation will be on a literal stage in the school’s theatre. Yet where Javier sees only bad futures ahead, Departing Seniors shows characters who, at least when they look out for each other, have good prospects – with the strong bond of friendship between Javier and Bianca the ideal model for a decent tomorrow. 

For despite several brutal murders, this serial killer thriller (coming with both supernatural and queer elements) is surprisingly sweet-natured, not to mention light-hearted. Here even the ‘high school assholes’ have their likeable side and are more misguided than irredeemably malicious, while the identity of the culprit is so easily guessable that you may well for a moment mistrust – entirely falsely – your own sleuthing instincts. Yet adolescence itself is the real slasher here, wounding (or worse) those who go through it with pain, trauma and even permanent scars – but Cooney’s film suggests that, provided, as they enter adulthood and grow to accept who they are, they can survive to adolescence’s end and, importantly, learn to put it behind them, the kids, for all their anxieties and antipathies, confusions and denials, will be alright.  

strap: Clare Cooney’s feature debut casts a queer eye over the tropes of the high school slasher

© Anton Bitel