2016 R UK Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot 83 mins.
It says much about Don’t Hang Up that I’m irresistibly drawn to say of it: “It’s Saw meets Unfriended—with a bit of The Strangers thrown in.” What this says about Don’t Hang Up is that it consistently echoes other horror films. Some critics will no doubt say that this makes the film derivative, formulaic. Don’t Hang Up is actually better than that, and the way in which it evokes other films is actually a plus for me. It’s hard (some would say impossible) to create something absolutely new: everything builds on what’s gone before. Don’t Hang Up is creative—original—in the way that creativity and originality most often exist in the world: it puts things that have come before together in some new ways. And that makes it a film worth watching in my book.
The film begins with a group of high school boys making prank calls, which they stream online for the thrill of getting thousands of views. The film’s opening montage cleverly shows how the exuberance and excitement of the prankers is predicated on the suffering of their victims, to which they give not one iota of consideration. Here’s where Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014) comes in, which is similarly about what happens when teenagers put a video depicting someone else’s misery online. The opening scenarios of both films dramatize the callousness of young people, or the callousness produced by lives lived in large part in the abstracted world of social media . . .or both.
The film soon centers in on its two main characters, Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett Clayton)—and it’s not too long before the consequences of their thoughtless pranking comes home to roost in the form of what seems at first like a prank call directed at them. Here’s the trailer, which shows the set-up.
The caller, “Mr. Lee,” knows a lot about Sam and Brady, and he doesn’t waste any time making it clear that he’s going to hold them accountable for their practice of messing with other people, for showing an absolute disregard for their victims or for the consequences of their own actions. Here’s where Saw (James Wan, 2004) comes in. Don’t Hang Up, in the form of “Mr. Lee,” borrows from Saw the idea of a man bent on distributing what he sees as a punitive albeit legitimate justice. Like Jigsaw, “Mr. Lee” also has a predilection for “games,” specifically games in which the unwilling players have to make excruciating choices. “It’s time to decide who lives and who dies,” he says, at one point, channeling Jigsaw. Presumably this is an attempt to make the heedless young people recognize that their choices are never made in a vacuum (as in the empty abstracted space of the internet) and that they always have consequences. Along these lines, there are also shades here of 90s neo-slashers like Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), with their attention to teen irresponsibility and to the idea that no act is committed with impunity.
The teens targeted by “Mr. Lee” have plenty of crimes to pay for (they do more bad stuff than make prank calls) and, as a viewer who’s long past my teen years, I’m perennially horrified by the teenage venality on display in films like this one, something that’s clearly facilitated by social media (e.g., Unfriended, #horror, Sickhouse etc.). In Don’t Hang Up, it’s not even clear whether anyone learns the lesson that “Mr. Lee” wants to teach (and, maybe it’s a generational thing, but I certainly found myself increasingly in sympathy with him, despite his apparent role as villain). There’s a very telling moment when Brady is given the choice to save his parents or his friend and he throws his parents under bus with shocking ease. ‘It’s a choice,” he tells Sam. “Us or them. They would want us to save ourselves. Wouldn’t your parents?” For me this is a clear message of Don’t Hang Up. Teen selfishness is being paid for by the selflessness of their parents, fostered, in fact, by the selflessness of parents. Teens expect their parents to be selfless so they themselves can wallow in shameless attention only to self. This film may deliver an unintentional wake-up call to parents that they not get sacrificed on the altars of their less-than-deserving progeny.
Don’t Hang Up is directed by Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot, for both of whom this is the first feature-length directorial project. Macé and Wajsbrot have previously worked on visual effects in a lot of well-known films, and their skill is very apparent. Together with writer Joe Johnson, they’ve crafted a film that is notable for its direction, cinematography, and plot. The acting, at time, is the film’s weakest link, though it’s for the most part serviceable enough.
Definitely worth a watch.