Polaroid (2017)

SEPTEMBER 19, 2019


NOTE - Dimension invited me to see this movie back in 2017, when it was still scheduled for release that December. I assume their troubles have kept them from bothering to tinker with it, so now that it's finally here - dumped onto VOD - I am finally publishing the review I wrote then and can presumably stand by it.

I'm gonna be up front with you guys: I am currently 37 years old, which is about twenty years over the range of Polaroid's target audience. While some PG-13 films aren't necessarily aimed at younger audiences (What Lies Beneath being one of the best examples, in that only a middle aged adult could possibly find that movie entertaining), this one focuses on high school students and their various teenager issues (i.e. Will the popular guy at school notice our introverted teenager? And will her single mother stop working double shifts long enough to stay home and have dinner with her?), and even more notably has a plot that hinges on taking a picture at a "the parents are out of town" house party. It's the sort of movie that will be frequently rented for sleepovers and might even be the gateway for a few kids who weren't allowed to see It or Annabelle - but that doesn't mean it's a waste of time for adults, either.

Indeed, among these Ring-type horror movies (where a device of some sort turns out to be haunted) it's actually one of the better ones, thanks to a few smart choices, a likable group of protagonists, and (thankfully) a minimum of fake scares like overly loud doorbells or whatever. As you might expect from the title, the haunted object this time around is a Polaroid camera, which our photographer and antique-loving heroine Bird (Kathryn Prescott) is gifted from her coworker who found it at a yard sale ("It even has a few rolls of film," he tells us, so that we don't have to wonder how someone can find old-school Polaroid film in their small town in the year 2017). Thanks to an otherwise unnecessary prologue we already know the camera is haunted, so we're able to move right along - she uses it to take a picture of the coworker in order to test it out, and then she goes to a party and takes a picture of her friends, plus another solo shot of the mean girl who is hosting the party. The coworker and the mean girl are offed that night, and Bird quickly realizes that everyone who gets their picture taken with it will die.

Yes, this is a goofy plot, but then again so is watching a VHS tape and dying a week later, so we can't really complain. In fact, part of what makes the movie work is that the script doesn't act embarrassed about its own plot by having everyone keep saying "You're crazy!" or whatever. After the two acquaintances are killed, she tells her other friends (the ones in the group photo) what seems to be going on, and instantly one of them tries to burn the picture - which causes his girlfriend's arm to catch on fire, and no one can extinguish it until Bird stomps out the fire on the photo. The photo then magically reforms itself right in front of them, so they all have seen its supernatural powers with their own eyes, rather than the usual "doubt until it's too late" approach that so many others opt to try. By skipping past the naysaying, we are able to introduce new wrinkles and avoid deja vu - hell the backstory doesn't even require finding a body entombed in a wall or whatever and in need of a proper burial!

The backstory is actually fairly disturbing, almost to the point of making me wonder why they were so teen-centric with the rest of the movie as it deals with some rather upsetting material that parents might not be down with their kids hearing about at this juncture. Also, the casting of a key role in the mystery (which doesn't really kick in until the third act, once we've gotten the cast whittled down a bit) is a bit on the nose, as the actor/actress is most famous for playing a very similar role (hint: they reprised it this year) and I honestly can't tell if it's genius or an inadvertent spoiler. Speaking of the cast, I trust you'll all be as happy as I was to see Mitch Pileggi show up as the town's sheriff and pretty much the only skeptic in the film, as he doesn't witness the haunted camera as the other characters do. Not only is it always fun to see him on screen, it's particularly amusing to see Horace "Shocker" Pinker scoff at the idea that a dead killer might be using an electronic device to rack up more victims from beyond the grave.

That's another thing I enjoyed about the movie: the makers seem to have an affinity for the genre, but don't stoop to rubbing our noses in it. There are no overt references to other films - I just got the sense that they had seen the same ones and were trying to avoid copying them too much, while still hitting all the beats that the target audience would need for the film to hold their interest. It's not exactly deconstructing anything, but like, when she tries to take a picture of her dog and he runs away before she can, I couldn't help but think "OK, they've seen Wish Upon too and don't want to repeat their mistake of killing the damn dog off to show us how it works" (I know that this film was shot before Wish Upon's release and therefore that can't be the exact case - it's just the example that came to mind, so just go with the general idea). Likewise, when the popular boy she likes starts talking to her, you worry it's because he's an asshole and there's some prank coming (i.e. a character to hate whose death we can enjoy), but he's a genuinely good dude who goes above and beyond to help her solve the mystery. In fact, as I mentioned all the kids are pretty likable; one gets heated when he realizes they're all targeted and kind of blames Bird for their predicament, but he makes up for it after a bit (and she holds no grudge against him, either) so it comes off as believable panic and frustration as opposed to another modern horror flick where everyone seems to hate their friends.

As for the PG-13 rating, it's not too much of a crutch. Again, the backstory is pretty dark, and one character is split in half (albeit with nary a drop of bloodspray), so it at least pushes the limits of the restriction. I don't think it was cut down to be softer (this IS a Dimension film after all, so the possibility is always there), though there were a few scenes where it seemed like conversations were trimmed in order to move things along. I'm sure it was all just needless exposition or insignificant character backstory kind of stuff, i.e. nothing that would be missed; it's only noticeable because a character will say like "OK, great!" or something along those lines when the other person wasn't really saying anything that would produce that kind of a response. But anything seems Oscar-worthy after the abominations of Rings and Wish Upon, the latter of which didn't even seem like they actually finished it yet, so I probably shouldn't even note it.

Long story short, this is the sort of movie that could have very easily annoyed the shit out of me and had me saying things like "teens deserve better". But it's made with some basic intelligence and a refreshing lack of aiming for the lowest common denominator. It's not particularly great or anything, but as I've said in the past, if I can moderately enjoy a film when I'm technically old enough to be a parent to its target audience, then I think they've done their job well, and that's fine by me. The snowy climate was also a plus (I'm never going to get over the loss of the snowbound Friday the 13th movie) and they kept the CGI villain to a minimum (and he didn't really look all that bad - plus the "melting film" effect we'd see when he was moving or being injured was kind of cool), so overall it's a "more right than wrong" kinda deal. "The year's best teen horror!" might be dim praise, but it's better than sucking outright, no?

What say you?


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