Chain Letter
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Chain Letter

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Unfortunately my expectations for horror films have plummeted over the last few years. I used to really enjoy a good old fashion scary movie but lately ally that seems to get release are flick that would make Tomás de Torquemada shudder with disgust. Psychological thrillers gave way to overt, viscerally driven flicks filled with little more than a couple of hundred gallons of stage blood, a box load of rubber entrails and a couple of young ladies completely devoid of the slightest modicum of modesty. Slam those factors together mix with a budget sufficient to cover a keg of beer and a carton of smokes and in a couple of days you got yourself a horror movie. These slash and dash flicks have become the de factor default premise for the genre entirely replacing movies with substance that frightened you by taking time to get into the dark emotional recesses of your mind instead of just grossing you out with a cheap scare. After just going through yet another of the ‘Saw’ franchise just about anything would seem like ‘Citizen Kane’ by comparison. With that in mind I come to the movie under consideration here ‘Chain Letter’. Up front the one thing the movie has going for it is it does pull back on the excessive use of special effects. There is at least an attempt to try to revert back to a pre-torture laden faire to the old grind house fright films many of us cut our movie going teeth on. I found the similarities to a drive-in Saturday night scream feast. There isn’t a lot that is new in this movie but that does appear to be par for the course lately. What is interesting here is the cast and crew gave the appearance of wanting to do the best possible job under what were certainly not ideal circumstances. Instead of coming across as yet another mindless blood bath this film reads as a descent pop corn flick.

The writers, Diana Erwin and Michael J. Pagan are fairly new to a screenwriting experience. this is the first opus for Pagan while Erwin was a contributing author for the horror anthology series, ‘Night Tales’ as well as the movie derived from it. Directing the movie Deon Taylor whose previous work also concentrated on ‘Night Tales’ and a similar series, ‘Up All Night’. With relatively new writers and directors, particularly in Horror, it is not unusual to get started with familiar themes. The results may be hackney but in some cases films like this can serve as training wheels that hopefully will lead to better, more original projects. They stick close to a formula as they gain experience; few are brilliant the first time at a new job. The difference between the film makers here is the spark of potential, a distinct feel that there is an honest effort behind the production. Call it a gut reaction if you want but I have seen enough of the worse this genre has to offer to know when something comes around that at least made a go of it.

The movie begins by establishing the basic premise and the underlying motivation. While the film does center on an ever dwindling group of over sexed teens that are all perfect in appearance, at least this time they aren’t sneaking off to some mutant infested woodland to party. Replacing that as the affront against the psycho killer these kids are getting killed off for their over indulgence and all consuming dependence on technology. When the group of friends begin getting a chain letter in their email they are warned if they do not forward it to four others they will die. Of course the long unseen killer has a chain tattoo and thinks of imaginative but painful means of dispatching the targeted teen. This is foreshadowed in the initial shot where someone is bound with duct tape; limbs attached to chains. These are in turn affixed to the cars of a young adult couple who drive off and except for a quirk of fate would have ripped the victim to pieces. The ‘survivor girl’ trope is filled by the character of Jessie Campbell nicely played by
Nikki Reed, most recently of the ‘Twilight’ franchise. It is up to her to start piecing things together when it becomes obvious that the high school is experiencing a rash of untimely chain related deaths. Okay, the chain killer proves less imaginative than ‘Jigsaw’ when he resorts to bashing one girl directly over the head with the chains. Representing the real world investigation is Det. Jim Crenshaw played by Keith David who just started on TV in the new NBC comic book derivative, ‘The Cape’. The other adult in the picture is a staple of horror films and someone who it is always fun to watch, Brad Dourif, as the creepy high school teacher, Mr. Smirker. He is an apocalyptic neo-Luddite who appears to teach a class whose curriculum consist entirely of denouncing technology to a class full of students each of which has a cell phone, iPod and laptop. No one does bat guano crazy quite like the illustrious Mr. Dourif, he never fails to bring out a little bit of Chucky in us all.

This cast is above average for this type of film and it shows. They are professional enough to make up for the overt familiarity of the story with performances that are capable of holding together as entertaining. Taylor has a fascinating eye for framing a shot and a few little shots that are visually incredibly interesting. To his credit he does not pander to the lowest possible plot devices avoiding the over infatuation with graphic violence and gratuitous nudity. Sure there are some bloody scenes but nothing on the order of what has become commonplace. Taylor exhibited a refreshing restraint with this movie making it more appealing. The same holds true of overt nudity. I have nothing against it but in horror films it is so blatantly contrived that avoiding it comes across as innovative. Grab some pop corn and have some fun with this one.

Posted 01/21/11

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