Judge Ike Oden's serial killing technique involves singing telegrams.
Our review of Chain Letter, published January 21st, 2011, is also available.
If you don't forward it, you die.
A group of cell phone addicted high school teens (led by Nikki Reed, Twilight) find themselves being stalked and murdered by the "Chain Man" (Michael Bailey Smith, The Hills Have Eyes (2006)), a serial killer who wipes out his victims based on an intricate, online Chain Letter system (hence the title). If the teen canon fodder fails to forward or delete their Chain Letter warning, they are dispatched a chain-themed way. Hot on Chain Man's trail is Sgt. Hamill (Betsy Russell, Cheerleader Camp) and Detective Crenshaw (Keith David, They Live), our surrogate Dr. Loomis/Van Helsing archetypes, whose competency in solving the case will be brought into question…a lot.
Okay, Chain Letter, I'm gonna admit it. I sorta-kinda like you as a new slasher movie. Not like-love you, like I did Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon or like-you-enough-for-a-torrid-secret-affair, ala my fling with Rob Zombie's Halloween II (it's an underrated movie!), but I think you're pretty charming. You don't have my heart, but you've won my friendship.
Why am I writing this review to you in the form of a pseudo break-up note? The more I think about it, the more I find my relationship to you is akin to one of my ill fated high school romances. There's an intense connection between us, and there are a lot of things I like about you, but I'm afraid our time together isn't meant for anything more than passing friendship. For that, I'm truly sorry.
Now, before you spiral into a fit of self-loathing and resentment toward me as a film critic, let me speak my piece. First, the positive: you're different and unique for an indie slasher. You aren't arrogant and underwhelming like those Hatchet and Laid To Rest guys. Those films purport themselves to be bringing back "Old School American Horror" and play off lazy, shallow writing with raps like, "Hey man, I'm a slasher movie—if you don't like it, go watch The English Patient." By the time you prepare a witty rebuttal, they've already got your money and are halfway to Tijuana to spend it on blow and cockfights.
Man, I can't stand those guys. Chain Letter, you're different because you (while also gore obsessed and brimming with stupid testosterone) at least have some ideas to bring to the table. They aren't exactly mind-blowing, but they prove for a unique, thought provoking (albeit nihilistic) take on the slasher formula.
Sure, your e-mail chain letter gimmick is achingly close to concepts used in the One Missed Call series or even Scream, but I prefer your take on the technological plot device because you allow it to evolve and grow into religious and political territory (without giving too much away). Not many slasher films are this ambitious, and while a botched (if ballsy) ending spoils any chance to fully explore the Chain Man's serial killer ideology, the mere unraveling of his intentions is a breath of fresh air. Plus, the slasher set pieces on display are beyond fabulous—as good as anything in a Friday the 13th or Final Destination flick—but with just a touch of unsettling Saw torture porn. Plus, the gore scenes are done with old fashioned prosthetics and corn syrup, just like God intended.
But listen, Chain Letter, before you going bragging to your idiot friends about how awesome I think you are, let me assure you that you are not all that and a bag of chips (um, kids still say that, right?). In fact, the potential you have in themes and gore is almost counterbalanced by a plague of thin characters and grossly over stylized direction. I'm giving most of your teen protagonists a pass, as they aren't spectacularly annoying and are, for the most part, decently acted. It helps too that you stray from the "final-girl" slasher playbook—a choice that I utterly adore.
What I don't adore is your stunt casting of great actors only to utterly waste them in bit roles. Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and Keith David are among two of my favorite character actors ever—Dourif could make ad copy for a butter commercial sound ominous and funny all at once, while David has one of the greatest growling voices in film history. So why aren't they given anything to do? Dourif has a fun cameo as a creepy high school sociology teacher, but only shows up in two scenes and a flashback (laaame!). David looks bored as hell, playing a role that feels carbon copied off of Danny Glover's detective character in Saw. Even worse—he barely does anything at all. You don't cast one of the most badass movie badasses ever just to bring in a larger audience. It smacks of crass audience exploitation, which I suppose you are, but dammit, Chain Letter—give Keith David a Thing or Rowdy Roddy Piper to fight or something! And why is Betsy Russell even in this? Besides to bring in the Saw crowd.
Bah. Forgive me, Chain Letter, I'm getting over excited—much like your direction, which is full of camera work that refuses to sit still for two seconds to establish what the hell is going on. Chain Letter, do me a favor. Tell your director/co-writer Deon Taylor he doesn't have to snap zoom onto people's faces every time a new dramatic twist is revealed. Actors like Nikki Reed and Keith David can communicate the gravity of the situation with their acting. Such hyper-kinetic techniques only make for unintentional hilarity. Still, I suppose over-stylized is better than no style at all, giving the film a generic David Fincher vibe that, while a bit generic in the context of 2011, is adequate in setting the mood of the film and characters. Really slick looking death scenes don't hurt anything, either.
Before I end this note, let me say, my lack of attraction to you isn't because of look. Chain Letter, you look pretty solid on Blu, boasting a sharp image and an impressive color palette (at least for the over-saturated cinematography choices). There's some graininess and blemishes in a couple of scenes, and the image could have a bit more detail, but the effect is adequate overall. The 5.1 True Audio HD audio track is equally good, not incredibly flashy but with a fine balance between environment, action, and musical effects. A little more oomph would've been welcome.
Extras wise, you've got so much going on, like a trailer and…wait, that's it. A trailer? Really, Chain Letter, this is why I'm the one dumping you, and not the other way around.
Not guilty, but don't expect any play from me in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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