Appellate Judge Tom Becker jumped a fence and outran a watchdog just to get you this review.
Some urban legends are real.
Everyone in town knows better than to take the shortcut through the woods by the old Hartley place. It's been fenced off for years, ever since those kids disappeared. Back then, people just figured the kids ran away, and no one asked too many questions for fear of crossing the richest family in town. These days, there's only one Hartley left, and he's a crazy old man who keeps to himself. But sometimes, when people's dogs go missing, they say the old man gets them and does terrible things.
High schooler Derek (Drew Seeley, Another Cinderella Story) and his little brother, Tobey (Nicholas Elia, Speed Racer), are the new kids in town, and when Tobey takes the shortcut on a dare, he sees a slaughtered dog—and meets the crazed Hartley. When word gets out that there was, in fact, a butchered dog on the shortcut, another kid whose dog's gone missing wants to investigate, and soon Derek and a small group of high schoolers are checking out the legend and casing out the Hartley place.
But what they find isn't the stuff of legend. It's the stuff of nightmares.
The PG-13 rating is widely considered a kiss of death for horror movies—it means sex and violence, and therefore the scares, are muted in service of the kid-friendly classification. The Shortcut, however, is an exception, an intriguing mystery-thriller that is more interested in telling its story of madness and evil in a small town than in showing off arbitrary gore effects.
Directed by Nicholaus Goossen (Grandma's Boy) and scripted by Scott Sandler (brother of Adam, who executive produced) and Dan Hannon, the film is structured like a short story, with horrifying episodes from the Hartley family history intercut with the present-day teens' investigation. It's creepy and effective because it's so recognizable—what small town doesn't have that cursed and storied piece of real estate that the kids cross the street to avoid and dare each other to explore? And isn't there often some strange grown-up loner—whispered to have an odd past—who's (generally unfairly) pegged as a monster? The Shortcut builds suspense by playing up these "small town mystique" and suburban legends angles. Despite a running time of less than 80 minutes (without credits), Goossen, Sandler, and Hannon wisely take time to let their story develop, putting this well above the usual low-budget shriekfest.
Unlike most teen horror-movie characters, the kids here don't take this mystery all that seriously, and they're not motivated to act by the thought that they're saving lives or preventing some larger crime. The whole "investigate the legend" is more like a game to them; Derek even uses the "mission" as a pretense for asking out a pretty cheerleader (Katrina Bowden, 30 Rock). Because we've gotten flashbacks to clue us in on what really happened all those years ago, we're aware of dangers the kids can't conceive of. Later, they make discoveries that make little sense to them but actually add more pieces to the puzzle.
Goossen directs with a slow mounting tension, and the final third goes all out horror, much of it surprisingly gruesome and unsettling given the PG-13 rating. There are enough late-game revelations to keep us off-kilter, but they never feel like cheats or throwaways; like most good mysteries, the answers were always there, we just didn't see them.
Anchor Bay offers up a good looking and sounding disc. The picture is clear and solid, doing justice to both the present day scenes and the slightly hazy, washed-out looks of the flashbacks. Audio is a strong 5.1 surround track. The only extra of note is a commentary by Goossen, which is a little on the blah side.
Original and chilling, The Shortcut offers a satisfying mystery and some hard-earned shocks. It's smart, creepy, and lots of fun, and it's well-worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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