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Fast-paced and funny, it’s quite possible that Maria Bissell’s endearing feature debut may just slide its way onto your list of top Christmas horror movies.

I don’t think there is a more polarizing genre within the horror community than horror comedies. When they hit their stride, they represent some of the best the genre has to offer, delivering on both scares and laughs in equal doses. But when they’re bad…boy, are they ever bad. Few films manage to strike that delicate balance in an effective and memorable way. 

Fortunately, How to Deter a Robber, which made its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2020, lands squarely in the first camp.

Teenage Madison (Vanessa Marano) is spending the holiday season with her family and boyfriend up in the family cabin in Wisconsin. Most of the wittiest one-liners in this film are courtesy of Madison (and, boy, are there a lot). 

Her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), on the other hand, isn’t too bright. While his cluelessness gives us plenty of laughs, it drives Madison’s overbearing mother (Gabrielle Carteris) crazy that her daughter would date someone who doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of stimulating conversation or future potential.

After a classic mother daughter fight, Madison looks out her bedroom window and sees a light on at the cabin next door. But the neighbors haven’t stayed at that cabin in months.

Concerned — or just looking for a way to escape her mom for a while — Madison convinces Jimmy to break into the cabin with her.

Once inside and comfortable nothing is out of the ordinary, Madison suggests they stay and try out the Ouija board she stumbles upon. Jimmy reluctantly agrees to a seance — but not before accidentally breaking a figure of the mythical hodag, getting high, and partaking in the blood of the hodag (beer with green food coloring). 

Eventually, the two pass out in the neighbor’s cabin.

And if you’ve ever gotten high enough to paint your face green to appease some kind of legendary, mythological creature, you’ll understand how Madison and Jimmy manage to sleep so hard that they don’t stir in the slightest when the cabin is robbed later that night.

It’s not until the next morning that they realize something is very wrong, and Jimmy becomes convinced it’s the curse of the hodag seeking its revenge. When Officer Martin (Nikki Crawford) and Office Russell (Jonah Ray) arrive on the scene, more hilarity ensues. The inept police officers tell the teens they’re not allowed to leave due to the ongoing robbery investigation. With her family scheduled to return home that day, Madison and Jimmy are forced to stay behind with Madison’s gruff uncle, Andy (Chris Mulkey).

But robberies keep cropping up in the area. And before long, you guessed it, trouble comes to Uncle Andy’s in the form of a couple of amateurs burglars, Christine (Abbie Cobb) and Patrick (Sonny Valicenti). 

This is when the movie really starts to learn into both the horror and the comedy hard.

Madison and Jimmy booby trap the house — in a wonderful sequence that will surely bring back fond memories of another Christmas classic, Home Alone — and we get to watch the robbers stumble into some pretty funny mishaps courtesy of the teens’ ingenuity. 

However, what starts out as a pretty routine, “stay calm and nobody gets hurts” robbery — with Uncle Andy keeping everyone level-headed — soon takes a dark turn when an accident leads to escalating tensions and significantly raised stakes. As the chaotic and increasingly manic events of the night unfold, relationships are tested, hard truths are revealed, and everyone is forced to learn what they are really made of.

I don’t know what’s better about HOW TO DETER A ROBBER, the great characters or the phenomenal dialogue, because they intertwine so well. These characters feel real. And even though circumstances aren’t the best, you almost wish you were hanging out with the group just to be in on the jokes.

Besides our main trio of protagonists, the female robber, Christine, is an absolute delight. If you find Jimmy endearingly dumb and lovable (spoiler: you probably will), you’ll fall head over heels for her. Watching the Q&A following the Fantastic Fest premiere, it was clear these actors had a blast on set — which truly shines through in their compelling onscreen performances. 

With a run-time of only 85 minutes, the actions comes quickly and never lets up. But we’re also giving the perfect amount of character development to make us care about who we’re watching and fully invest in their plight.

Lean, highly entertaining, and a joy to watch, How to Deter a Robber is everything you want it to be. And as a feature debut, it’s a great showcase of writer/director Bissell’s talent and future potential. 

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4.5

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