In the minds of millennials and Gen X’rs, there is an symbol of the 70s and 80s phenomenon of “stranger danger”; that is, the Reaganite concept of children staying safe by not talking to strangers (and visualized by a graphic that feels like it might be responsible for millennials being afraid of the so called “Hat Man”). Despite the idea being eventually tweaked to include the tragic reality of most children suffering abuse not at the hands of strangers but usually by someone they know, there is a near iconic visual that looms large in the collective psyche of people born between 1970 and 1985: the white van. In the ominously simple titled The Man In The White Van, director and co-writer Warren Skeels taps into the rich wellspring of paranoia and anxiety of people who were kids in the 70s and 80s and produces a film that relies more on the unseen and implied than any sort of real visual aspect in order to induce a feeling of horror in the viewer.
The Man In The White Van is a loose adaption of the case of Billy Mansfield Jr., a serial killer/rapist who murdered five women in the late ‘70s. Rather than cast an analog of Mansfield as the protagonist, Skeels instead focuses on the character of Annie, a teenage girl living in Florida in the ‘70s. Annie’s world is thrown for a tailspin as she realizes she is being stalked by an ominous white van, and as her pleas to her parents for help are discounted as tall tales she is forced to confront whomever is following her every step.
This is an incredibly tense film that does a lot with a little. The titular white van, the driver of whom we never clearly see, becomes something akin to the shark from Jaws: even when it’s not on screen its presence is felt. It is a monolithic figure, predatory in and of itself. Skeels’ use of long shots with the van in the distance, out of focus, and not focally the point of the shot quickly establishes a sense of ever-present danger, something that could be literally anywhere. The viewer will find themselves scanning the background for a glimpse of it, feeling like it could appear at any moment. For yours truly, as someone who grew up in the wake of the murder of Adam Walsh and who obsessively read Stephen King’s It, the concept of an omniscient stalker full of ill intention was something this film had me believing in quite easily, and I found myself quickly attaching that fear to the sight of the white van. It is this feeling, one of constant danger, that is the true source of horror in this film. It makes the viewer feel unsafe, threatened even, and that feeling lingers long after the credits roll.
The acting in this film goes a long way in drawing the viewer deep into a world worth believing in. Madison Wolfe is fantastic as Annie Williams, the protagonist who the titular Man In The White Van sets his insidious sights on. Wolfe gives Annie a realistic vulnerability and insecurity, someone who exists in the shadow of her very confident secure older sister Margaret (played perfectly by Brec Bassinger). Wolfe is far from your classic final girl in a horror film: she has next to no social charm and an almost cringeworthy awkwardness about her. And yet, ultimately, she proves that she has an unglamorous and gritty core to her that in retrospect is present the whole time. Bassinger’s Margaret is a fantastic ultimate older sister, a snotty superficial uberbitch more concerned with boys and high school politics than her younger sisters increasingly frantic warnings about the man in the van. A third act face turn proves that Bassinger has the acting chops to bring to life characters that are far from one dimensional. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel there was something wonderfully perverse casting Sean Astin as their father. Astin’s presence in the movie, while wholesome and pure enough, felt like its very presence was inviting the viewer to think about his role in Goonies as the ultimate resourceful teenager vs. malignant adults, and how now he is a father whose children are threatened by that same brand of villainy. It was a subtle callback to the time when such paranoia was at its back, ripping away the saccharine veneer of Goonies to reveal a grim and dark underbelly to the phenomenon of children under threat. This isn’t to say Astin’s presence is merely ornamental; he’s fantastic as a middle class dad struggling to understand the whims and ways of his teenaged daughters.
Alas, while the film succeeds at maintaining an atmosphere of horror throughout its runtime, it struggles somewhat in creating a wider human element between a lot of the characters. Skai Jackson as Annie’s best friend feels almost woefully underused and little more than a stock background character. Likewise, Annie’s romantic interest Mark, the new kid from Nashville, seems shoehorned in simply to have a romantic element to the film, with Noah Lomax doing little more than standing around looking mysterious and occasionally locking lips with Annie. I understand the film is trying to create a whole depiction of early teenhood, but the softer side of this just comes off as underdone and flat in comparison to the horror elements of the film.
A final aspect of this film that is worth noting is the anonymity of the killer. There are no red herrings. No clues. No breadcrumbs to follow to ultimately unmask the killer. There is no motivation. The man in the white van isn’t guided by any sort of vengeance towards teenagers, or a quest from God, or anything of the ilk. He is more a force of nature than a man, like a tornado that drops out of the blue sky to wreak havoc on a small town.
Childhood, and early teen years are wrought with danger, both real and imagined. The genius of The Man In The White Van is that it hearkens back to a very specific brand of danger, getting into the minds and under the skin of a specific demographic in a way few films can. Whether or not that was a specific choice of on the filmmaker’s part is irrelevant; in the end it hits like a sucker punch to the gut by evoking the imagery of a dark and panicked time in this country’s history.