Don't Hang Up (2016)

JUNE 8, 2016

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)

Last week I saw I Know What You Did for the first time, so it's kind of funny that today I found myself sitting in a theater watching a pseudo-remake. Don't Hang Up, like William Castle's lesser film, concerns a pair of crank callers who pick the wrong random number to dial, and face the consequences of their actions. Unlike that earlier movie, there's a body count on both sides of the equation here, and the movie doesn't stop cold to address the killer's romantic complications, so overall it's a much better film - though it's not quite a home run, either (more like a solid double if you want to stick with baseball metaphors). Maybe crank calls just aren't the key to genre masterpieces?

Of course, the main problem is that unless you're a 12 year old, you're probably not going to be too endeared to anyone who spends their free time bothering and in some cases downright terrorizing people, as our two "heroes" don't exactly ask about running refrigerators or Prince Albert's whereabouts. We learn how far they go right off the bat when they call a woman in the middle of the night, pretending to be the police and telling her that there's an intruder in the house who may be about to enter her daughter's room. Later they tell someone that his daughter died in a car crash - I mean, JESUS, that's a pretty horrible thing to do, so you're kind of on the killer's side when he starts tormenting them. The big difference between this and Castle's film (besides the gender change - our crankers are male here) is that the murderer isn't even identified until the very end, let alone become his own (unmasked) character, so we get to play a guessing game, wondering if they just called the wrong guy (i.e. a murderer) that night or if it's someone they wronged in the past.

I don't think it's spoiling much to say it's the latter, as it doesn't take long for the killer to reveal that he's got one guy's parents tied up in their home and has potentially kidnapped the other guy's girlfriend - he couldn't have set all of that up in the hour or so that occurs between them making their calls and the killer calling them back. He also forces them to make tough choices (i.e. "Kill your friend and I'll let your parents go" sort of stuff), and since it's a modern horror movie, he also has to play mind games with them and reveal that one has slept with the others' girlfriend. If you've read my Collins' Crypt this week you already know about that, as it inspired a rant that's been brewing for quite a while now (so long that I momentarily had to wonder if I had already written the same thing with a different movie as the inciting example), and it certainly didn't help endear the characters to me further - now I also have little reason to like the girlfriend, who was at least not involved with the prank calls.

The weirdest thing about the movie is that it only focuses on two of the guys, despite the fact that the opening sequence establishes four of them. One of them shows up briefly and is removed from the suspect list at around the halfway mark (he works as a pizza delivery guy and is on call - they even buy the pizza they prank deliver to a neighbor), but the other, known to us as "Prankmonkey", is completely wiped out of the movie after the first five minutes. I'm not sure if they wanted us to wonder if the 4th guy was actually the one tormenting them for some sort of ultimate prank (or if he just followed the natural progression of someone who would tell a woman her daughter was about to die into full blown psychosis), but it's a pretty unsuccessful red herring if that was the case, and the fate of "PrankMonkey" remains maddeningly vague until the very end - are they saving his comeuppance for a sequel? I mean he was kind of the main guy for their little group (they post very popular videos on Youtube), so leaving him out of the revenge scheme would be like if the killer in Terror Train took his revenge on the group when Doc was out of town or something.

Plus, having a third guy in the house where 95% of the movie takes place would mix it up a bit, so loyalties could be further tested, alliances could be made, etc. It gets a bit repetitive watching the two guys have the same arguments over and over ("Let's make a run for it!" "We can't!" - we hear like five variations on this discussion), not to mention, again, the small issue that they're assholes who deserve what's coming to them. Indeed, ultimately we learn what exactly they did to earn the killer's scorn, and I was sitting there thinking "Wait, if that's what happened, what took you so long to strike back at these assholes?" It's a weird thing to be thinking about in a horror/thriller movie like this - it's not even a "gray area" kind of thing, I was fully on the killer's side once all of the information was laid out.

Where the script let me down, the filmmaking made up for it, however - for a movie that's set almost entirely in a upper-middle class living room, it's got a lot of visual flair. The directors (another directing pair! So many these days - remember when it was almost unheard of?) mentioned Panic Room as an influence and it shows - there's a great swooping tracking shot that carries us from high above the ground, down to the house, through the keyhole, in between knick-knacks... it's a technical marvel and not at all what I expected to see in a movie about people talking on the phone. They also pull one of those Strangers-y moments where the killer is just standing in the house behind one of the (unaware) protagonists, which will never not spook me out. Incidentally, after coming home I got distracted by something when I pulled into my garage and forgot to close the door, noticing it a half hour later - I was definitely on the lookout for random masked people standing silently in my house for the next few minutes.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the movie more or less, but more for its technical showcasing and almost admirable decision to make the killer more sympathetic than the "heroes". Had the killer been just some random guy with no clear motive, it'd be a disaster - the reveal kept it afloat, though it doesn't change the fact that we spend 75 minutes focusing on two assholes and precious little else. Kind of asking a lot of an audience, in my opinion. I bet it'll be a bit easier to digest at home though, when you have the added tension of wondering if anyone is silently stalking you as you watch a horror movie (a feeling you can't quite get in a crowded theater). Hell, playing with your phone during less thrilling moments might even add to it!

What say you?

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