The passing of Brittany Murphy in 2009 was tragic not just because she was only 32 but because she showed so much promise as a multi-faceted performer. She burst onto the cinematic scene as the bubbly Tai in 1995’s Clueless and proceeded to prove herself adept at both comedy and drama. From Drop Dead Gorgeous to Girl, Interrupted to Don’t Say a Word (probably her best performance) to 8 Mile to Little Black Book to her voicework on TV’s King of the Hill, Brittany Murphy had plenty of range and had plenty of promise ahead before her untimely death.
2000’s Cherry Falls gave Ms. Murphy the chance to take on one of horror’s most famous tropes: the final girl. Per Wikipedia, or your own film experience, the “final girl” refers to the last woman or girl alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story. It’s a convention but with the right actress like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Sigourney Weaver (Alien), or Neve Campbell (Scream) it can make a film and establish a career. Cherry Falls is part horror film and part satire of horror with its story about a psychotic killer going after virgins. Brittany Murphy stars the virginal Jody who we watch get dumped by her frustrated boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann) at the film’s outset.
Jody just happens to be the daughter of the small town’s sheriff (a perfectly cast Michael Biehn), who is rightfully stymied by the current murder spree that is seeing virgins get inexplicably slaughtered. As word gets out in the small committee, the high school students plan a debaucherous “Cherry Party” in the hopes of evading the radar of the virgin-hunting killer. Despite this goofy premise, the film plays everything straightforward and we do not get much in the way of gratuitous sex.
There are plenty of suspects on hand from the previously mentioned Kenny to a loud-mouth classmate (Michael Weston) to the new English teacher (Jay Mohr) to the sheriff’s trusted deputy (Amanda Anka) to the hard-nosed principal (Joe Inscoe). Honestly, you should be able to figure out the killer in the first twenty minutes. But what makes Cherry Falls interesting is the killer’s motivations as we learn about the secrets in this small town, which includes the long-ago disappearance of a Loralee Sherman.
Cherry Falls is far from revolutionary, especially considering that it came out in the late 90’s “horror revival” that included Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. But the film works. It doesn’t overreach, even with the “familial ending” promising a sequel. Director Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper) keeps the action crisp and avoids letting the conventions of the genre turn into clichés. Additionally, the back story (that I do not want to spoil) is tragic and surprisingly powerful. Michael Biehn provides a reminder of what a good actor he is as the conflicted sheriff who is trying to protect his daughter from both a killer and the truth.
But the heart of this film is Brittany Murphy. Watching her unravel the town’s and her father’s history makes the film effective. The film is a startling testament to her talent and tribute to what was lost when she left too soon.