[Review] How to Deter a Robber (Celebration of Fantastic Fest): Holiday Home Invasion Leads to Laughs, Lumps, and Learning to Grow Up Quickly

It’s not easy being 18-year-olds adrift between the worlds of the teenage years and adulthood, but you certainly have to “adult” pretty quickly when you are first suspected of being robbers and then become the victims of a home invasion — especially if you hope to make it out of the situation alive. This is exactly what happens to the young protagonists of writer/director Maria Bissell’s comedy thriller How to Deter a Robber.

Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano) and her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) are spending the Christmas holidays at Madison’s family’s vacation home in the woods. Madison and her mother Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris) are constantly at odds, and after the trio are involved in an accident that ruins the turkey meant for a festive dinner, Madison and Jimmy go to their absent neighbors’ home when they think they see a light on in the empty house. They end up holding a seance and then falling asleep, waking to find that the house has been ransacked. After the rest of Madison’s family must return to Chicago the next day, the two teens are told to stay behind by the police and put under the care of Madison’s uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey). When the real serial robbers break into a home only to find Madison, Jimmy, and Uncle Andy there, the film shifts from straight comedy to a thriller with less frequent comical moments. 

Marano, Papac, and Mulkey make for a terrific comic trio, and Mulkey does a fine job also as the voice of calm and reason when the trio is at the mercy of the robbers (Abbie Cobb and Sonny Valicenti). Marano shows an expertise at delivering long, rapid-fire comical rants and she has facial expressions to match her great comic timing. Papac is also solid as the none-too-smart but always well-meaning Jimmy. Cobb also gets some hilarious lines and plays her confused character marvelously.

The tonal shift from comedy to darker territory is sharp, but Bissell shows that she can helm both elements with precision. The uncomfortable family drama between the Williamses walks the fine line between comical and painfully accurate, and Bissell again delivers with those scenes.

How to Deter a Robber delivers some of the red stuff, but the focus here is overall lighter, rather than going for a chilling or heavy vibe. It’s out to entertain, and it does a  wonderful job at it. The film should find a wide audience with those who enjoy dangerous situations with their holiday comedy. 

How to Deter a Robber screened as part of Celebration of Fantastic Fest, which ran from September 24–October 1.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.