FANTASTIC FEST 2020: Hodags, Hostage Situations, and ‘How to Deter a Robber’

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How to Deter a Robber

What good is sweet without a little bit of salty? Especially something as saccharine as the typical holiday movie. How To Deter a Robber‘s unassuming beginnings, as a tale of family tension around the holidays, conceal just how much fun it can be when shit hits the fan! Watching How To Deter a Robber conjured up memories of another badass take on the holidays in the form of another great Fantastic Fest title, Deadly Games (screened at the Fest in 2018). It couldn’t be more appropriate for How To Deter a Robber to have its World Premiere at the legendary genre fest… even if it is all virtual. As we enter the cozy time of year, most of us still huddled up in our homes, what could be better than a holiday romp that takes your safety blanket of hearth and home and flips it on its head?

How To Deter a Robber is written and directed by Maria Bissell, in her feature debut, and stars Vanessa Marano, Benjamin Papac, and Chris Mulkey (Twin Peaks). In How To Deter a Robber, Madison (Vanessa Marano) is a young woman looking to catch a break.  She’s preparing to head off to college, but her parents still treat her like a child. During a holiday dinner, where everything goes wrong, Madison sneaks off with her boyfriend Jimmy to vent and shake off the awkward evening when they see a mysterious light coming from the neighbor’s house. Their investigation turns into a chance to hang out alone and it’s all fun and games until Jimmy breaks a ceramic hodag (a mythical creature of the North Woods — yeah, it’s a thing). That’s only the beginning of their bad luck, as Jimmy and Madison fall asleep at the neighbor’s house and wake up to discover there had been a robbery during their stay.

Now, with the police looking over their shoulder and a string of similar robberies occurring in the area, Madison and Jimmy — with the help of Madison’s Uncle Andy — are determined to get to the bottom of things. What none of them considered is that it may cost them their lives. They’re just kids, what do they know about deterring a robber?

It’s easy to place How To Deter a Robber squarely in-between Home Alone and Deadly Games, films separated by decades but each linked through playful inspiration. How To Deter a Robber truly straddles the two as a film that is firmly a comedy, with moments of intense action as a thriller. The film is a good time, at times a little goofy, and is at its best when it’s having fun.

How to Deter a Robber

How To Deter a Robber doesn’t exactly do anything new. It sets up its points and its stock characters and follows the typical beats. Predictable, but not a negative, because the commitment and talent are there. How To Deter a Robber is comfortable with being a fun holiday-horror-comedy and what it sets out to do, it does very well. Tonally, the film shifts quite a bit with mixed results (more on that later) but the end result is a sweet, heartful film with an impish streak.

Honestly, where How To Deter a Robber is most effective is as a coming of age story. This whole film is about rising to the occasion and leaving behind immaturity and inexperience when faced with a challenge. Madison has a great arc from a slightly whiny, inexperienced girl to a young woman that’s quick on her feet, fiercely loyal and brave, and able to come into herself and choose the life that suits her. Beyond Madison’s own growth and transformation, the comparison of her parents to the character of Uncle Andy speaks to the importance of trusting young people to grow.

If How To Deter a Robber stumbles anywhere, it’s in balancing the varying tones of the film. The film has such lightness and humor that the shift into a home invasion is jarring. The third act of the film introduces a little more blood, a little more violence, and a little more dire stakes, but it doesn’t necessarily feel earned. Some of these shifts are out of place but, to be square, How To Deter a Robber works regardless.

How To Deter a Robber has the makings of an alternative holiday favorite. It offers more than laughs, without becoming pretentious, and is sincerely executed. It’s refreshing to see a film that keeps fun firmly at the center. Naughty and nice and a damn good time.

How To Deter a Robber held its World Premiere as part of the 2020 Celebration of Fantastic Fest on September 29, 2020.


How To Deter a Robber
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

How To Deter a Robber has the makings of an alternative holiday favorite. It offers more than laughs, without becoming pretentious, and is sincerely executed. It’s refreshing to see a film that keeps fun firmly at the center. Naughty and nice and a damn good time.