Mark Reviews Movies

Don't Hang Up


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot

Cast: Gregg Sulkin, Garrett Clayton, Bella Dayne, Jack Brett Anderson, Sienna Guillory, Parker Sawyers, the voice of Philip Desmeules

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violence, and language including sexual references)

Running Time: 1:23

Release Date: 2/10/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 10, 2017

It comes as no surprise to learn that Don't Hang Up is the feature directorial debut of two visual effects artists. One can spot the use of computer effects here to accomplish shots that would otherwise be impossible—the camera moving through windows, keyholes, and cars—or improbable—the camera perfectly tracking a cellphone as it falls to the floor. These are the flourishes of new filmmakers who really want to show off what they can do. When they're presented with opportunities for such showy shots in their next venture, it might be good for them to ask if they actually need to do it.

There's a fairly sold thriller here once directors Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot get the early flourishes out of their system, and a lot of that has to do with the way they and cinematographer Nat Hill use the space that the story provides. It's a two-story home in suburban Los Angeles on a dark and eventually—as you probably have already guessed—stormy night. The premise has a lot to do with technology, primarily the need-for-likes culture that has risen with social media sites, as well as the perils of having the details of one's entire life accessible to anyone with the ability and desire to obtain them. The execution is far more low-tech—darkened rooms and hallways, threatening phone calls, uncertain noises coming from upstairs, lights suddenly turning off, menacing figures appearing in the background.

It's a tantalizing mixture of modernity and old-school scare tactics, and there's a lengthy section of the movie (relatively speaking, since the movie, without credits, is only about 75 minutes long) during which it's surprising how well it works. It takes a long introduction to a bunch of obnoxious characters to get there, and the buildup is wrecked by a climactic showdown that pulls out some really cheap fake-outs and an unpleasant touch of nihilism. Still, for a while here, it's effective.

The opening is a wink to an old cliché, as a woman (Sienna Guillory) receives a terrifying phone call in the middle of the night. The call is a prank, perpetrated by a team of online pranksters. They're the kind of guys you'd expect them to be, and if you need a hint about what that entails, the ringleader goes by the online handle "PrankMonkey69." They're annoying, yes, and the movie indulges in their apparent online popularity, with single shots and split-screens of people in stock videos enjoying the crew convincing the woman from the beginning that her daughter has been murdered by a home intruder.

There are only two of the team that matter: Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett Clayton). They're best friends outside of their pranking. Sam is going through a patch of uncertainty with his girlfriend Peyton (Bella Dayne), who's about as disposable a female character as they come (She kisses Sam and then ends up in peril for the rest of the movie). Brady thinks an evening of making prank calls will brighten his buddy's mood. They make one man believe his wife has died in a car crash, give someone a phony cancer diagnosis, and nearly get their co-prankster Mosley (Jack Brett Anderson) beaten by an aggressive neighbor.

When one of their targets calls them out on their twisted games, there's a moment of wondering if there's a new hero in the movie. He calls himself Mr. Lee (voice of Philip Desmeules), and he knows a lot about Sam, Brady, and the rest of their crew.

The rest should be apparent: Mr. Lee isn't messing around, and he has Brady's parents tied up to prove it. He also streams a video of him murdering the head prankster. That will be their fate and the fate of those they love, unless they follow his instructions.

The rules and goal of Mr. Lee's game are a bit fuzzy, since part of screenwriter Joe Johnson's own game is to get the friends to suspect each other of possible betrayal. It doesn't quite matter, though, because the movie's middle section maintains a sense of momentum that keeps such logic-straining or downright illogical matters at bay. The clever stuff plays with current technology, turning a photo-sharing mobile app into a horror show with a countdown timer and forcing the guys to figure out if a video is streaming live or pre-recorded. The effective, low-tech material involves the guys—mainly Sam—searching for the source of the strange happenings in the house (A lengthy scene from a subjective perspective, armed with a flashlight, is a standout).

There are some big problems, too. The characters never surmount the obstacle of their introductions to make them sympathetic. The movie tends toward bloody reveals for shock instead of building up the untapped suspense of the scenario. The truth behind Mr. Lee is obvious, meaning the screenplay's attempts to establish a mystery fall flat. Most irritating, though, is how Don't Hang Up resolves its central and side conflicts in a climax that alternates between gimmicky fake-outs and misguided cruelty.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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