In the aftermath of the Isla Vista tragedy of May 23, 2014, I.V. residents and UCSB students and staff — and no doubt thousands more — suffered through grief, searched for healing, and attempted to make sense of the jarring violence that had torn through the community. But the actions of the assailant, whose shooting and knifing rampage ended the lives of six students and caused a deep scar in the community, also provided certain others with an idea: What if this could be made into a piece of entertainment?
On August 5, the trailer for Del Playa, a slasher film from Berger Bros Entertainment, was released. It focuses on a killing spree by a mentally and emotionally disturbed youth — catalyzed, at least in part, by romantic rejection — in “the vibrant party atmosphere of UC Santa Barbara’s adjacent town.” The I.V. and UCSB communities immediately erupted in outrage and disgust at the thinly guised portrayal of the most traumatizing chapter in their history; a petition on change.org calling on the producers to halt the film’s release garnered over 23,000 signatures by the following Sunday.
Shaun Hart, the writer and director who is — of all things — a UCSB alum, put out a statement in response, admitting there is a connection to Santa Barbara, but he denied trying to capitalize on the tragedy or using last year’s shooter as the inspiration for his killer. According to him, the film “is meant to portray incidents that take place, not only in Santa Barbara, but across the country on a daily basis” as well as serve as a catalyst for a dialogue on the violence and issues it depicts.
It requires unparalleled naïveté to take Hart’s statement at face value. The close similarities between the trailer and the real-life tragedy’s backstories, horrors, and setting — in addition to the timeline for its inception and production — make it abundantly clear what inspired Hart and producer Josh Berger.
Films certainly have the potential to spark constructive dialogue on difficult, ugly issues such as gun violence and bullying, but a slasher is not a genre designed for this. The violence, gore, misogyny, and sneers are meant to entertain audiences. Though we don’t sympathize with these fictional killers, they’re still meant to stimulate our imaginations and let us get a thrill out of brutal inhumanity from a safe distance. The trailer’s shallow depiction of women — as well as its direct assertion that the women’s actions created the killer — reinforce for our entertainment the blatantly misogynistic motives and actions of the real-life shooter. It’s not entirely the killer’s fault, we’re subtly told — he’s been unfairly pushed over the edge.
The entertainment value of a film like this means the true pain from an event like the Isla Vista tragedy — the senseless death of six people and the serious injury of many more — will be degraded to a commodity. What the film makes entertaining for some will reopen wounds in others. It takes real harm and tragedy and uses them as a means to a profit. Choosing to make this film shows a startling lack of empathy and a disturbing willingness to exploit others’ trauma. With Isla Vista and UCSB still healing in many respects, as well as with all the horrific shooting rampages the country has been reeling from over the last few years, this form of exploitation is shameful and appalling.
Horror films aren’t insensitive or shameless in and of themselves, but those who use a community’s recent suffering for their own ends certainly are. Berger Bros Entertainment can’t be compelled to cancel the film’s release on the grounds that it’s insensitive, exploitative, and turns a real-life horror into mere entertainment. As offensive as their film is, Berger and Hart have a right to express ideas through film. But common decency demands respect for those who have suffered a terrible tragedy. Any ethical person should recognize where to draw the line. Until they realize where and what that line is, it’s on us to protest a film that will only do more harm to our community.