Just in time for Halloween, we get The Man in the White Van, a new thriller by first time director Warren Skeels. The producers say it's inspired by the real-life exploits of serial killer Billy Mansfield Jr., who terrorized rural Florida in the 1970s.
Teenager Annie (Madison Wolfe) lives in a country home with her nuclear family: Mom (Ali Larter), Dad (Sean Astin), younger brother Daniel (Gavin Warren), and prissy older sister Margaret (Brec Bassinger). Every day, Annie walks across a highway to stables where she rides her horse, and lately she's noticed a white van, there every time she turns around. The van's driver, "The Man" of the title, is barely glimpsed, except as a shadow through his dirty windshield. It waits for Annie on the roadside, and ominously cruises by while she's with friends at school. Tensions rise, and Annie tries to alert the family, but Margaret, her debutante-in-waiting sister, chides her about crying wolf. It isn't until the danger is right upon them that anybody believes her.
An onscreen odometer, starting in 1980 and cranking back year by year, shows flashbacks to The Man's previous kills. What's noticeable is that if The Man has a "type," it's not obvious. He's an equal opportunity abductor, as likely to lift a young girl on a camping trip as he is a 30-something waitress just off her shift. Now he's chosen tomboy Annie, who turns out to be a worthy match. She is scared but not deterred. The scenes in which Annie faces off at dusk against the van, idling like a lion, are eerily effective.
The Man in the White Van is a well-crafted production. Mr. Skeels' direction and Billy Gaggins' editing are lively and full of surprises: a scene of a victim being pulled backwards out of the front seat of her car cuts to an egg yolk plopping in a pan. As a character is being garroted, another character, in close vicinity yet oblivious, talks on a rotary phone while winding its cord around a bed banister.
Executive producer credits go to Ali Larter, an actor best known for her roles in the Final Destination series, and Sean Astin (where you been, Rudy?). Both of them star as well, and their presence alone lends legitimacy. You’ll know Madison Wolfe (Annie) from The Conjuring II and HBO's True Detective, and Bre (Margaret) has been featured in TV series like Stargirl and Bella and the Bulldogs. Skai Jackson is appealingly perky as Annie's best friend Patty.
The year 1974 is staged with carefully chosen verisimilitude: Annie's room is adorned with a vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd poster, and her stacked-discs turntable serves up needle drops like the Cowsills' "I Think I Love You" and The Edgar Winters Group's "Free Ride." A spiffy period gas station is the site of one of The Man's more daring kidnappings.
Yet there's really no reason to set the film in the past at all. The odometer timings confuse: are we in the past, present or future? Why go to the trouble of recreating the past when crimes just like these are tragically the stuff of today's headlines?
The press materials tell us their model is an obscure serial killer, but that hardly matters, either. The Man is as generic as killers come, a pretender to the title of Jason and Michael Myers. The film has franchise on its mind; the end shot suggests more mayhem to come.
But a technical question: What does The Man do to his victims? We assume murder and worse, but it all happens offscreen. Suspense suffers: we don't know what The Man has in store for Annie because we're spared the grisly details.
That said, a movie in this genre seems an odd choice for a film that touts a "female-led producing team." Films in this genre are the stuff of overheated male imaginations. Okay, in the case of The Man in the White Van, one could make the case for female empowerment—Annie coming into her own—but the conflict is still centered on violation of women.
The Man in the White Van is scrubbed clean, Stalker/Slasher Lite. It could very well be a Lifetime Movie. Not that sex and violence are necessary, but they are essential elements to the genre. Their absence begs the question: do the producers know who their target audience is? Don’t they know they come for the carnage?
The Man in the White Van. 2023. Directed by Warren Skeels. From Garrison Film, Legion M, and XYZ Films. 110 minutes.