TONE DEATH

DON'T HANG UP (15)

Director: Damien Macé, Alexis Wajsbrot

Screenplay: Joe Johnson

Starring: Gregg Sulkin, Garrett Clayton, Bella Dayne

Review: David Stephens

November 19, 2019

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Phone-Horror really should be a sub-genre all of its own. Look at the essential phone-receiver scenes in classics like “Scream” (1996), “Black Christmas” (1974), and “When a Stranger Calls” (1979). They maintain sheer menace and terror, keeping the identity of the perpetrator secret, but enabling intimate closeness between victims and killers. Ill-advised prank calls also have their place in genre history, with William Castle’s “I Saw What You Did” (1965) starting a trend where random jokey phone conversations lead to something deadly. The aesthetics of the humble phone has changed over the years of course, with mobile/cell phone coverage ruining cabin-in-the-woods films, and the gradual disappearance of cords and landlines. It doesn’t mean that you still can’t use a long-distance conversation as a base concept for a horror film when you want though, especially if the killer is cunning enough. Enter “Don’t Hang Up”, a psycho-thriller co-directed by two visual effects maestros (Damien Mace and Alexis Wajsbrot). After a preview at last year’s Halloween Frightfest festival, and a theatrical release in the states, it’s now getting its DVD/VOD premiere in the UK. So YGROY upgrades its call plan and prepares for a long night of ear-ache…

 

It starts with a woman (a “Scream”-inspired cameo by actress Sienna Guillory) being awoken at 3am by a call on her phone. It’s the police and there’s a stalker in the house. As she acts on the requests of the voice on the phone, all is apparently not what it seems … Cut to the main characters, and boy do they suck! There’s Brady Mannion (Garrett Clayton) who calls himself “PrankMonkey69” online and along with his small group of friends, he performs umpteen phone pranks on social media in the hope of going viral. His bro-buddy is Sam Fuller (Gregg Sulkin), who’s currently going through a bad-patch with his girlfriend Peyton (Bella Dayne). Trying to cheer him up, Brady turns up at Sam’s house for a night of drinking and more prank calls. But it all goes a bit weird when a calm voice calls them and suddenly turns the tables on their exploits. Calling himself “Mr Lee”, the LOLs stop as soon as he threatens them and the two pranksters find themselves on the receiving end of some very nasty tricks…

 

The film does create some pretty noticeable stumbling blocks for itself; the most obvious one is the “likeability” of its two lead characters. The story does such a good job in establishing the fact that Brady and Sam are douche-bags of epic proportions, that it’s initially hard to summon any sympathy for them when the crap starts hitting the fan. They’re the epitome of the screw-other-people-dude asshats that (still) invariably crop up online, hoping for minor celebrity status by making people look dumb. But then again that IS sort of the point, and their come-uppance is the crux of the plot…

 

You also have to accept a couple of predictable (at least to genre fans) incidents in the latter half of the movie, and the fact that Sam’s immediate neighbours in the Los Angeles suburb must all be totally deaf and blind! We’ll gloss over the dubious technological aspects as well. However beyond those minor whinges, you do have a very enjoyable and dark horror romp that doesn’t disappoint.

 

As should probably be expected from a film directed by filmmakers with experience of visual effects, the camerawork is excellent and used very well. There’s an early zoom shot that goes through a watching camera lens, then zips through a tiny keyhole, and prowls around a house looking for Sam. Other sequences have the POV melt through TV screens and windows, all simulating a single tracking shot (although it obviously isn’t). Most scenes are also nicely framed, with some very subtle he’s-behind-you moments. It might seem pretentious to rattle on about those aspects at length, but many lower-scale genre films get those elements so very wrong, and the cinematic visuals are surprisingly strong here.

 

The visual aspects are matched by the dark tone of the narrative. This isn’t your typical teenage-victims-in-peril slasher movie here. The antagonist is a great creation, a calm talking guy (or is it?) with a thoroughly creepy mask and a clear malicious intent. As the events ramp up in seriousness, you have no doubt that anything he says is not just a false threat. There’s such a wonderfully grim and mean-spirited tone about the plot and “Mr Lee’s” actions, that it feels “Saw”-like in many parts (NB: One moment is DEFINITELY a homage to the franchise). It’s so tense in parts that you invariably forget that 90% of the narrative takes place within the interior of one house.


In keeping with films like “Unfriended” and “Friend Request”, the films does throw (probably a few too many) social media nods at the screen in an attempt to emphasise the potential dehumanisation that occurs on it. And as our focus is almost entirely on Brady and Sam, it could be argued that threats to supporting “innocents” could lose some impact. Luckily Clayton and Sulkin are up to the challenge, and when not being hate-worthy tools (the characters, not the actors), they do actually really sell some of the nastier sequences.

One drawn-out death-scene in particular has some real heft to it because of their reactions, and another sees Clayton crying silently in front of the TV, which doesn’t need any dialogue to complete the picture. A special mention must also go to Philip Desmeules as the voice of “Mr Lee”, who does an excellent Tobin-Bell job of invoking menace and intent with merely his vocals.

 

Some might not like the final denouement but it worked for us, and feels true to the rest of the film. We also liked that final coda (but we’re a bit warped like that). And in terms of similar films, the more “mature” moments and theme are welcome. You get the impression that this could possibly have been pitched at a PG-13 level at some point in its development (we don’t know that, we’re just guessing). But the constant F-bombing and messy murders feel like a good fit to the story, which ultimately has no real “heroes” anyway and works better as an R-rated experience.

 

So all-in-all, this is a surprisingly solid and enjoyable horror that doesn’t shirk away from nastiness or a dark vibe. Good camerawork, performances, and an all-round awareness of what works in the genre, means that it gets a thumbs-up from us. Some elements might hit the “ignore” button for some, but we’re more than happy to “accept” this for the dark and twisted romp that it is. Call story bro’…

 

DVD Extras: Your call-plan is cancelled. Just a trailer.

Once you get over the dislikeable lead characters and some realism-holes, this is highly enjoyable stuff. There’s some great camerawork, a dark-and-twisted vibe, and some mean-spirited violence. Some of it is a little predictable, but overall it’s a very nicely constructed horror that pulls together the best parts of films like “Saw” and “Scream”. Definitely not a cold-call.
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