Kristy isn’t a person; she’s an ideal. Young, beautiful, privileged, innocent and pure, a Kristy is the closest thing on our mortal coil to an angel. Naturally, Kristys (Kristies?) across the country are being ritualistically murdered, with the grisly evidence posted on some dark web Reddit knockoff.
Justine (Haley Bennett) isn’t hep to this whole nationwide online kill-cult thing. All she knows is that she’s staying on-campus for Thanksgiving break. She’s too broke to pay her own way home and too goodhearted to exploit her friends’ generosity. Au revoir, devoted boyfriend! See you later, best buddy who was supposed to pal around with her in this ghost town of a college campus! Yes, literally every other student enrolled at this nameless university has skipped town. Justine basically has the run of the place, with only a skeleton crew of staff left to wave to every so often.
For a while, anyway, Justine is having a blast. Read. Swim. Skate. Fill out FAFSA forms. Stage solo Olympic games down barren hallways. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. After day after day of more of the same, what once seemed like freedom has become lonely and tedious. Oh, wait! Justine remembers that her pal left her the keys to her ritzy BMW. Aching for a change of scenery, she heads out to a nearby convenience store for a pint of Cherry Garcia and a soda run for one of the school’s security guards.
Justine didn’t catch the pre-credit sequence with Violet (an unrecognizable Ashley Greene) standing over a bloodied corpse, so she has no idea that loon throwing magazines around an aisle over is a seasoned killer. Mistake #1 was being too obviously creeped out by Violet. Mistake #2 was returning her snottiness at the checkout line. Mistake #3 was, well, being a Kristy. Or being Kristy-adjacent yet driving a Kristy’s Bimmer. Something like that. From there, think The Strangers, only instead of a home invasion thriller, Violet and company are laying siege to an entire college campus.
Slasher cinema traditionally sees a single lunatic hunting a gaggle of morally questionable twentysomethings. Kristy inverts that formula. It’s unclear at first how many of these murderers are stalking Justine, but she certainly knows she’s outnumbered. She has no circle of friends that’s gradually hacked to bits, one after the other. Justine is the Final Girl by default. Once the mayhem is underway, she never shares the screen with more than one other victim-in-waiting, nor is there any reason to think the temporary saviors that Justine encounters along the way will survive into the next scene.
That many-against-one construction is remarkably effective. Because there are essentially no other characters to cut away to, the murderous pursuits throughout Kristy are unrelenting. Whereas the victims in most slashers are reduced to a single trait (the good girl, the prankster, the jock, and on and on), its tighter focus allows us the time to come to know Justine as a person. As she isn’t a cardboard cutout, the torment she endures is that much more agonizing to watch.
So many thrillers are littered with dimwitted people making indefensible decisions because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. Justine isn’t cut from that cloth. If you can look past her insistence in staying on-campus alone (which I can, having been a stay-behind myself) and telling off Violet in the Kwik-E-Mart, everything she does makes sense. She’s so good-hearted and responsible that viewers’ sympathies can’t help but lie with her, and she’s intelligent, resourceful, and capable enough to amount to more than a victim.
Kristy delights in upending its audience’s expectations. It knows how familiar you are with the visual language of thrillers, such as what it means when a camera lingers at a closet door for a second too long or when our heroine is framed just so against a window, only to yank the rug out from under us as viewers in an altogether different way.
I would’ve thought that a home invasion thriller would lose much of its intensity with this sort of setting, as a sprawling college campus doesn’t exactly mirror the claustrophobic confines of a suburban home. It instead works surprisingly well, keeping things from becoming stale, each backdrop offering false hope, and introducing new ways to potentially fight back. Just as the film has no interest in limiting itself to a single location, Kristy isn’t content in retreading the same beats for an hour and a half straight. The slasher formula is inverted yet again in its third act, building off seemingly throwaway moments from the beginning of the film as a hunter calculatedly, mercilessly stalks its prey.
Watching a movie as well-constructed and ably cast as Kristy, it’s bizarre to think that this was a film that escaped rather than be properly released. It underwent several title changes on its way to an aborted theatrical run, instead premiering as a Lifetime Original Movie, of all things. I can’t speak to how the version on Netflix differs from its basic cable counterpart, but even though Kristy is light on viscera, it’s atmospheric, unsettling, and grueling in the best possible way.