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Case Number 23850: Small Claims Court

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Playback (2012) (Blu-ray)

Magnolia Pictures // 2011 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 21st, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan is horrified by toasters.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Playback (2010) (published November 12th, 2010) and Playback (2012) (published May 25th, 2012) are also available.

The Charge

Some secrets should stay buried.

The Case

I'm never one to hate on technology, but everyone must admit that there's always two sides to every piece of technology. Though the car lets us travel farther and faster than any previous form of transportation, there were no such things as automobile accidents which kill thousands of people a year. Even a relatively benign technology like the Internet (which hasn't run anyone over yet, to my knowledge) can still be used to facilitate identity theft in ways easier than previously available. Most people, however, don't really worry about this stuff actively, and instead process their anxiety about technology through culture. Horror fiction in particular has a long and proud history of dealing with technological anxiety. Just witness the famous case of Dracula, where technologies like blood transfusion, shorthand typing, and railroads play a huge role in the story. Of course, just because horror helps us deal with our anxieties doesn't mean it does it well. Playback is a case in point. It could be about our fears of being recorded (or our fears of what can be recorded), but ultimately the film is just another lazy "let's kill the teenagers" flick that only desperate horror junkies should seek out.

One of the most famous incidents in Julian's (Johnny Pacar, Love Hurts) small town is the murder of the Diehl family by their patriarch, Harlan. Julian wants to re-enact the murder with the help of some friends for a project. After they film in the house, Julian's friends start to disappear, and it's up to him to stop the evil spirit that's been unleashed with the aid of local cop Frank (Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume).

I suspect that prior to the ubiquity of digital photography, most people had a pretty good idea of how film worked. Lots of people had at least loaded a film camera or seen it done at some point in their life, and countless movies have shown the process of development and printing. In comparison, video (especially digital video) must seem like magic. Since it's not as easy to understand, it's something to be feared. That's why films like Ringu (and its American remake The Ring) use a dangerous piece of video as their premise.

Playback obviously tries to mine the same territory as films like that, but it is notable only for its failure. Rather than making the idea of a spooky tape or digitally released ghost the centerpiece of a horror story and allowing the scares to come naturally from that premise, Playback instead takes an equal mixture of missing-teen-slasher tropes and mixes it with haunted-house-and-evil-spirits tropes to create a mishmash that doesn't really have anything to say.

That would be forgivable if the film was otherwise competent, but it really isn't. The writing is pretty lazy, with an obvious killer and no suspense. The film fails to generate scares because the audience always knows where the kills are coming from, and the "whys" are pretty obvious from the beginning. The characters are distinguished only by their lack of distinction; they're all painted with the widest possible brush strokes and not aided by the so-so acting on display. Though Christian Slater was obviously intended to be a big draw for direct-to-video viewers, his character isn't in much of the film, and doesn't do much when he is there. Some summaries make it sound like the film revolves around his investigation, but that's nowhere near an accurate portrait of what happens in the film. So, don't be fooled by Slater's presence in the credits into thinking he's a major player.

Playback (Blu-ray), on the other hand, isn't bad. This was never going to look like a reference-quality release, but this 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer is fine. Detail is okay, colors are accurate and well-saturated, and black levels are consistent if not as deep as I'd like. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is a bit better, with clear dialogue from the front and some nice atmospherics during the spookier scenes from the surrounds.

Bonus features start with an 8-minute making-of paired with a 5-minute promo. Both are a bit light but give a decent idea about how the film got made and what everyone involved feels about it. The other extras are a small photo gallery and the film's trailer.

Playback is competently directed enough that it doesn't fall into the "so bad it's good" category. With a few tweaks to the script, the casting, or the budget it might have been a solid B-level horror flick. Instead, it's a disappointment that should only be viewed by those who've seen every horror film ever made…or maniac fans of Christian Slater.

The Verdict

Some secrets should stay buried. So should some films. Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 74

Perp Profile

Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• English (SDH)
• Spanish
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Blu-ray
• Horror
• Independent
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes
• Photo Gallery
• Trailer


• IMDb

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