Red State (2011) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

If you haven’t seen Kevin Smith’s Red State, starring Michael Parks and John Goodman, it’s the best horror movie you never saw

Filmmaker Kevin Smith is best known for his work in the comedy genre. His movies often center on comic book and Star Wars-loving guys, and tend to be packed with stoner humor and vulgar but amusing conversations about sex. But once he was more than a decade and several movies into his movie career, he decided to switch things up, making a horror film that was inspired by disturbing headlines and is packed with death, damnation – and some damn fine acting. Released in 2011, Kevin Smith’s first horror movie was called Red State (watch it HERE), and if you haven’t seen it, it’s the best horror movie you never saw.

Most Christian churches preach of a loving, forgiving God. But there’s one particular church with a small congregation that takes the concept of “fire and brimstone” so far, many have labelled it a hate group. Their idea of God is a hateful being who revels in the deaths of sinners and soldiers alike. They used to get a lot of press for protesting high-profile funerals, holding signs with shocking messages. They don’t get as much press coverage these days, so we won’t even mention the name of their church here. The point is, Kevin Smith saw the headlines about this group. He was disturbed and appalled… but also inspired to write a horror film about a church that has similar beliefs. But the congregation he imagined takes their beliefs to dangerous, violent extremes. Also a source of inspiration was the story of the apocalyptic cult the Branch Davidians, who, while under the leadership of David Koresh in 1993, had a disastrous stand-off with the ATF at their Waco, Texas compound. ATF agents showed up to execute a search warrant, kicking off a fifty-one day ordeal that involved shootouts and fires. And resulted in the deaths of eighty-six people.

The story Smith wrote is basically split into three sections, centering on subjects that you’re not meant to talk about in social situations: sex, religion, and politics. It’s set somewhere in middle America, presumably a red state – although, the film’s title is a play on the term, with “Red” being a euphemism for blood in this case. For the last decade, a church called the Five Points Trinity Church has been protesting funerals, spreading their message that America is going straight to Hell – and that the main reason for this is the country’s acceptance of gay people. This isn’t much of a concern for teenagers Travis, Jarod, and Billy-Ray, played by Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. They’re not gay. In fact, through the internet they have just set up a meeting with an older woman who says she wants to have sex with all three of them at the same time. Sexual banter is common in Smith’s movies, but here the dialogue is nastier. Rougher. These kids aren’t as likeable as the average Smith characters. Which was the idea, as this was meant to be a bleak, unsettling movie, with nobody you can really root for.

Red State Michael Parks Kevin Smith

On the way to meet the older woman, the kids enter a world of horror tropes. A dark night. A fender bender on a country road. An isolated trailer. The woman they meet with is Sara, played by Melissa Leo. She’s a bit older and more reserved than they expected, but they still intend to go through with their plans. Until Sara drugs their beer, knocking them out. When they wake up, they’re captives in the Five Points Trinity compound, Cooper’s Dell. The church has taken it upon themselves to eradicate sinners. They capture and murder gay people, and they’ll do the same to three teenagers who wanted to participate in a gangbang. But first, we witness a sermon by Pastor Abin Cooper. This role was written specifically for Michael Parks, as Smith had been blown away by his performance in the opening sequence of From Dusk Till Dawn. And Parks is amazing in this role. His character may be off-balance, but his sermon doesn’t involve ranting with eyes bulging and spit flying. He’s low-key and charismatic, he’s got a nice interaction with his congregation, which is made up solely of his own offspring and their spouses and children. But he peppers his scripture quotes with de-humanizing hate speech. It’s a disturbing scene, especially since there are little children in this group, hearing this talk and seeing two of the church’s captives in the room with them; one strapped to a cross, another in a dog cage.

Members of the congregation are played by Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach, Michael Parks’ son James. Kerry Bishé as Cooper’s granddaughter Cheyenne, Betty Aberlin from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and radio personality and podcast host Ralph Garman as a man who doesn’t speak. Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno cast member Traci Lords badly wanted to be in Red State and it’s easy to imagine her playing Sara, but it wasn’t to be.

Smith attempted to make sure the movie would never become predictable. When you think you know where it’s going, it swerves off in a different direction. So once the teens have been captured, it doesn’t just become a story of the church members torturing and murdering them. Remember that fender bender? The driver of the other car was local Sheriff Wynan, played by Stephen Root. Although Wynan is married to a woman, he sneaks off to hook up with male prostitutes on the side of the road. Not knowing the teens didn’t see what was happening in his car, he fears his secret is going to get out. So he sends his Deputy Pete, played by Matt Jones, to look for their car. Which he finds at Cooper’s Dell… right before he gets killed by the Coopers, who are definitely aware of Wynan’s secret. Desperate to deal with the situation, Wynan makes a call to the ATF.

Enter ATF Agent Joe Keenan, which proved to be the most difficult role to cast. Smith wrote the Red State script soon after making a cameo in Live Free or Die Hard. Since he had a great time working with Bruce Willis on that film, some wondered if he would try to put Willis in this film. Keenan would have been a good fit for him. But then Smith had the experience of working with Willis on Cop Out, and that ensured they wouldn’t work together again. Smith wanted John Goodman for the role, but Goodman was busy. So he turned to Dermot Mulroney. Talks with Mulroney went well – but then they ran into scheduling issues. Samuel L. Jackson expressed interest in being in a Kevin Smith movie. So Smith sent him the Red State script. Jackson read it and liked it, but his agent wasn’t interested in working around the budgetary restrictions to get him into the movie. By this time, Goodman’s schedule had cleared up. So he got to play the role, and deliver a great monologue toward the end.

The ATF has caught word that the church has been gathering semiautomatic firearms and modifying weapons. So when Wynan alerts them to suspicious activity on the compound, Keenan and other agents – including one played by Kevin Pollak – show up to execute a search warrant. A shootout ensues. With bullets flying around him, Keenan is informed that higher-ups have reclassified the situation. The Coopers are now considered a domestic terrorist cell. And Keenan and his men are to wipe out everyone in the compound. Men, women, and children.

Red State Kevin Smith John Goodman

Smith wrote the Red State script back-to-back with the script for the comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. His idea was to make the movies back-to-back as well. He wanted to have Red State filmed and Zack and Miri in post-production by the end of 2007. But it wasn’t that easy. All of Smith’s movies up to that point, except Mallrats, had been made for the Weinsteins. So the scripts got sent to them first. And neither of the Weinstein brothers were interested in making Red State. They found it disturbing and challenging, but not commercial. Zack and Miri Make a Porno, though, that one got a greenlight and put on the fast track to production based on the title alone. Unfortunately, the Weinsteins flubbed the marketing. Although the movie starred Seth Rogen, fresh off starring in comedies that had made over one hundred million dollars at the box office, Zack and Miri made less than forty million. This dropped Smith into a deep depression for a while, and turned him into a stoner for many years. He emerged from the depression to direct, but not write, the buddy cop movie Cop Out for Warner Bros. And that didn’t turn out very well for him, either. At this point, he understandably felt his movie career was winding down. He’d make a couple more movies, then pivot to podcasting and distribution. And one of the movies he wanted to make before he retired was Red State.

The project got more rejections for not being commercial enough. But in 2010, Smith was able to secure a four million dollar budget through private investors. That was enough to get the movie made… as long as he changed the ending. In the original script, the story ended with the apocalypse. The shootout between ATF agents and the Coopers is interrupted by the ear-splitting sound of trumpet blasts. The heads and chests of everyone around Keenan start exploding, and he sees this is being caused by armor-wearing, sword-wielding angels. Then the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride across the sky. When Smith sent that ending to his filmmaker friend Malcolm Ingram, Ingram’s only response was, “I dare you.” But he didn’t have the money to carry out the dare. So the film ends with a dialogue scene where Keenan explains the trumpet sounds were a prank being pulled by neighbors who hated the Coopers. It wasn’t The Rapture. After the movie was released, Entertainment Weekly put together an animated version of the original ending.

Red State had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Where its screening was picketed by the real-life church that was a source of inspiration for the film. Smith and his friends staged a counter-protest directly across from them.

Always a showman, Smith had said he would sell the distribution rights to the film in the Sundance screening room, auction style. But when this auction began, he quickly took the rights for himself. He had a self-distribution plan that involved touring with the movie, taking it to venues around the country. He didn’t want to work with the Hollywood marketing machine on this one, after seeing how much money was wasted on promoting his other films. For example, the Weinsteins gave him a five million dollar budget on Clerks 2, then spent ten million on marketing. He’d represent Red State himself. And it worked. By touring the film in North America and selling international rights, he was able to pay off the investors and make some profit. Then he sold the home video rights to Lionsgate – and it did well enough for them that they were still hoping he’d make a sequel a decade later.

Red State best horror

Red State is very different from any movie Smith had made before, in tone and style. It’s shot in a gritty, handheld way, with cinematographer Dave Klein drawing inspiration from the Normandy sequence in Saving Private Ryan when he was filming the shootout scenes. The movie plays like a documentary of awful events, featuring mostly terrible people. And the worst thing is, it seems like something you’d really see on the news. There’s no musical score, but there is an ominous rumbling on the soundtrack during particular moments. It moves along at the speed of one of the many bullets fired in it, getting through certain scenes with jump cuts when necessary, just to keep the momentum going. It’s dark, disturbing, thrilling, and occasionally there’s a laugh dropped in there.

What Red State has going for it more than anything is some excellent acting. Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, they and others all turn in great performances. Then get caught up in a bloodbath. The best scene in the movie is when we get to just sit back and watch Michael Parks own the screen for a while. Cooper’s sermon to his congregation goes on for more than ten minutes, but you can’t look away. Parks is captivating while being repugnant. Then the sermon is capped off by the murder of one of the church’s captives.

Smith set out to make an unsettling movie, and he succeeded. It was outside his comfort zone, but turned out to be one of the best films of his career.

Since it shifts gears often and the climax is a lengthy shootout, some disagree that it should be labelled a horror movie. Smith told Moviephone, “I called it horror because what else do I call it? The things that happen in it are horrifying. So I’m like, ‘That’s a horror movie.’ And that’s the easiest way to sum it up. But it’s more of a genre mash-up. I put in a little horror; I tried to do action thriller; I put in dark satire. It was kind of important to see if I could make another type of movie. I know that I can make a Kevin Smith Movie. The movies I dream about making aren’t my own; I dream about making Quentin Tarantino movies and Coen Brothers movies.”

So if the idea of a horror action thriller satire that blends elements of Smith, Tarantino, and the Coens sounds appealing to you, head over to Cooper’s Dell. Take in the violence and madness of Red State. You may not find any likeable characters in it, but it does provide plenty of troubling thrills and an entertaining viewing experience, especially if you enjoy great acting.

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.