As someone who has a soft spot in her heart for road-set thrillers like The Hitcher, Joy Ride, The Hills Have Eyes, Splinter, Kalifornia, Breakdown, or even the granddaddy of them all, Duel, I really had a lot of fun with writer/director Mark Pavia’s lean and mean slasher Fender Bender. It has a well-conceived story that (mostly) stays on the rails, characters that don’t feel like they’re trying to insult my intelligence as a horror fan, and a finale that takes us in unexpected directions.
Fender Bender begins by honoring its slasher roots through an opening scene that establishes its killer before picking up with the film’s true heroine, Hilary (Makenzie Vega), a high schooler who is probably having the worst day ever, and she hasn’t even met The Driver (Bill Sage) yet. She snuck out of the house to catch her cheating boyfriend (Harrison Sim) in the act, and once her suspicions are confirmed, the recently licensed driver heads home in an emotional state to contend with her parents, who will undoubtedly be displeased with her taking their new car without permission. While sitting at an intersection, Hilary is rear-ended by another driver (Sage), and the two exchange information and (seemingly) go their separate ways.
Hilary’s day only gets worse from there. Angry with their daughter’s actions, her parents decide her punishment is to remain at the homestead alone over the weekend to contend with the insurance company while they head out to enjoy their trip as planned. A few of Hilary’s friends (Dre Davis, Kelsey Leos Montoya) pop in to try and cheer up their chum, but she gets a few uninvited guests too: her cheating boyfriend, who confronts Hilary in a drunken rage, and, of course, The Driver, who is looking to claim a new victim (or four). Carnage ensues and the ever-resourceful Hilary must find a way to survive against the maniac who is set on destroying her before the night is through.
By and large, Fender Bender is a successful effort from everyone involved. Pavia, who hadn’t been behind the camera since 1997’s The Night Flier (an underrated effort), shows no signs of rust as a genre storyteller, smartly keeping things simple and straightforward. There are no twists, no meta moments, and no real frills to Fender Bender. Pavia’s story keeps things simple, avoiding over-explanations, rambling soliloquies, and motives—The Driver is just a predator, and unfortunately for Hilary, he will not stop until he’s claimed his prey.
What really sealed the deal for me on Fender Bender is its killer. Sage creates a presence brimming with cool charisma and yet is still weirdly off-putting, yielding a brutally wicked mean streak once he goes into full-blown psychotic killer mode. Sage truly elevates Fender Bender into something more than just another indie slasher movie and does a fantastic job creating a villain that I’d love to see more of in the future.
Glimpses into his methodology give us a sense of The Driver’s precision in his actions, providing just enough information to be intrigued by him as a villain and to want to see more. I’m also a big fan of The Driver’s look once he goes on the prowl. His leather getup with a faceless mask and metallic embellishments over his mouth feels timeless and is effectively terrifying, especially when he emerges from the shadows.
While I thought Pavia did a nice job of keeping things simple on Fender Bender, there were a few speed bumps for me along the way. One gag involves an apology cake left for Hilary on top of her car, and at no point does our final girl take a moment to contemplate that the creepy guy who hit her (and already drove by her house and texted her) may have very well left the tasty treat as bait. I love dessert just as much as the next person, but a mysterious cake left on top of my car (and not on the doorstep, which would be expected) would arouse my suspicions immediately.
Another situation concerning photos on Hilary’s phone would have been a huge red flag to me, even as a teenager with a lot less wisdom under my belt, but Fender Bender’s overall story, coupled with strong performances from Vega and her co-stars, make these small blips easy to overlook. It is a horror movie after all, and sometimes smart characters make dumb choices. It happens.
For those of you who enjoy a slasher movie that gets to the point and wastes very little time, Fender Bender is a great reminder that there’s an advantage (and an artistry) to keeping things simple. I wasn’t expecting to have nearly as much fun with Fender Bender as I did, but it won my genre-loving heart, and I’d certainly recommend horror fans to watch it when it airs on Chiller tonight—in fact, it feels like a movie I would have rented at the video store as a kid on a Friday night.
Movie Score: 3.5/5