'Chain Letter' Review


One can practically hear the pitch meeting for Chain Letter as the witless thing lurches across the screen:
"Hey, I can mush a bunch of Saw stuff together with some of that J-Horror crap and make it all look like I Know What You Did Last Summer! Can I have a check?"

"Brilliant! Yes! Here is some money."

Thus began the inception of one of the silliest, stupidest, and most overtly inept copycat horror flicks in recent memory. It's not the complete lack of style, sense and originality that dooms Chain Letter from the outset; it's the egregiously amateurish filmmaking style that says director / writer / producer Deon Taylor has no idea how to make a horror film -- even one that's outrageously beholden to a half-dozen pre-existing horror flicks. It takes a special kind of cluelessness to produce a horror film this voluminously vacant even when the blueprints are right there on every DVD shelf in the country. Strobe lights, random moments of slow motion, characters who simply vanish for long stretches of time, horribly redundant (and italicized) exclamations of ridiculously obvious exposition, empty-headed flashbacks to scenes that took place eight minutes earlier ... it'd be easy to blame most of Chain Letter's problems on post-production problems -- but there's a clear lack of cohesion to even the flick's most basic components.

Ostensibly about a serial killer who chooses his victims by way of an email chain letter, the flick spirals out of control at every opportunity. Long and dreary sections of the film are given over to merciless bouts of repetitive chit-chat, and the fact that the cast is composed of familiar and genre-friendly faces (such as Nikki Reed, Brad Dourif, Keith David, Betsy Russell, and Charles Fleischer) does little to alleviate the tedium. When the frankly moronic characters are not being pulled apart by (you guessed it) chains, they're staring at their cell phones with furrowed brows, vacant eyes, and aggressively empty words. Chain Letter is essentially a blatant rip-off of One Missed Call (the original or the remake, take your pick), with a bunch of visual and editorial cues stolen from Hostel and / or Saw. The cast of thirty-somethings cast as teenagers make the film laughable; that Deon Taylor thinks we don't know the films he's cribbing from is kind of hilarious, and actually a little insulting.

When the narrative plow breaks down, which is often, Taylor will cut away to introduce a brand-new (and completely meaningless) character, or he'll mount a long dream sequence intended to do little more than pad out his anemic movie's scant running time. Even the minor moments of relative quality (some nifty gore FX, for example) are drowned out by the filmmaker's tenaciously ineffective visual style. Also, the score is horrid, the actors are uniformly bored (and boring), and some of the film's technical specs seem completely unfinished. (Keep your eye on the computer monitors, should you ever choose to watch Chain Letter.) Say what you like about the Saw sequels, but they're David Lean films compared to what's on display here.

So while I generally have no problem finding the small nuggets of goodness in otherwise completely unoriginal horror films, there are simply none to be found in Chain Letter. Recent imports like Primal (Australia) and High Lane (France) are all but entirely beholden to earlier, better horror films -- but those movies also have small veins of worth: a touch of wit or darkness or (at the very least) some palpable affection for those earlier movies. Conversely, Chain Letter is ham-fisted and mercenary in the way it "borrows." which makes the whole affair seem desperate, forced, and seriously unlikeable. The fact that the flick looks it was prepped, shot, and cut in one drunken weekend certainly doesn't help matters.