I.Q. is a high school horror movie made by people in high school. If that sounds awful, get ready for a surprise: This is a wildly precocious piece of work.
It was made by the Keeling brothers, Aaron and Austin, who grew up in Lansing, Kansas. They started tinkering with their parents’ camera in junior high, making silly short films. By the time they got to high school, their work had evolved considerably. Influenced by the surreal, nightmarish films of David Lynch (as well as his scrupulous approach to sound design), the Keelings’ Playtime with Schlompkins and Pop Spoon are about as professionally made as anything you’re likely to see by teenage moviemakers.
I.Q. is their first feature. Aaron wrote, directed and shot it, while Austin edited, directed and co-starred in it. (They also performed numerous other tasks – too many to name here.) It took 344 days to complete, and the finished product runs 79 minutes. It’s a testament to their skills (and the Keelings have got MAD SKILLS) that about an hour of it is fun to watch; you often forget you’re watching a high school production. The best thing about it is that, perhaps for the first time, the Keelings have something to say.
It’s set in a high school where all the students are being left behind. The principal, Mr. Thompson (Bobby Parsons), is under enormous pressure to boost the school’s standardized test scores. He’s desperate when the devil shows up in his office in the form of a salesman (Brian Snodgrass), who pitches him on the idea of distributing a miracle drug called NCLB-240. All the students have to do is pop a little green pill every 30 minutes, and their intelligence levels are guaranteed to rise.
Five students – Amy (Jenny Curatola), Mike (Andrew Shafer), Caitlyn (Katie Cook), David (Austin Keeling) and Rachel (Amanda Pina) – are chosen to test the drug based on their lousy grades. Their scores improve dramatically, but pretty soon they’re all going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
There’s some playful social satire going on here. The five unlucky students are assigned to a class taught by Mrs. Robinson (Bianca Elliot), who kindly urges them to “come take your pills, kids.” The Keelings are making a subversive statement about standardized testing, which became such a central aspect of the public education system in this country under Bush II. They may be the first filmmakers who grew up in the Bush years to actually make a feature-length movie about growing up in the Bush years.
The opening sequence is a real grabber, hinting at the terror to come, but after that there’s a lot of exposition to get through. I’m not sure what to make of the subplot dealing with Amy’s boyfriend breaking up with her. Aaron Keeling’s script never quite sells us on the idea that the parents would be left completely out of the loop when it comes to the drug experiments. Of the younger performers, Austin Keeling is the best at delivering his brother’s dialogue, but the other actors have their moments. Pina is especially moving in the scenes where Rachel falls behind the rest of the class and starts taking more pills.
Just when you think the film is about to test your patience, the side effects of the drug start to kick in, and the Keelings unleash a tidal wave of imaginative horror imagery.
The most terrifying things happen inside an operating tent, which the students visit in their dreams. (I love the Wizard of Oz touch of casting Parsons in the role of a mad doctor conducting gruesome experiments.) I won’t soon forget seeing the guy with the dripping head wound, or the other guy with the birthday candles sticking out of his chest. In one of the most unsettling scenes, the students have their mouths sewn shut and buttons sewn into their eyes. I bet the Keelings were pissed when they saw Coraline had beaten them to the punch!
I should single out Elizabeth Decker for her spectacular makeup FX work. The original score (by Chase Horseman) and sound design also contribute to the film’s overall air of professionalism. As do the cinematography and editing, from first scene to last.
The Keelings go out on a high point, finding an ingenious way to encapsulate some of the ideas rolling around in their heads. It’s a stunning finale, one that hints at great things to come, and I expect nothing less from these talented young filmmakers.