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Chain Letter (limited)

On October 1st, four horror films battled for our attention at the box office, and while none were exactly smash hits, Chain Letter was the biggest loser, averaging about 30 tickets sold per theater for the ENTIRE WEEKEND. And now as I watch it again (I was sadly one of those 30), I still wonder – who the hell thought this movie deserved a theatrical release at all, let alone one on an already over-crowded weekend? Granted it was October and thus more horror films were opening, but four in one day? And none of them were PG-13, so they were competing for the same adult (or crafty teen) audience. If they were so sure that Chain Letter could be a sleeper hit, why not release it during a time when horror fans were starved for ANYTHING to go see in theaters (i.e. the spring, when Nightmare on Elm Street was our only real option)? It just baffles me.

But the film itself baffles me even more. It opens promisingly enough, with a logic-defying but still decent enough kill (or at least, the suggestion of one), but it’s all downhill from there. We meet our protagonists, all of whom fit one trait (Nerd, Jock, Bitch, Nice Guy, Cocky Guy, and of course, bland Final Girl, played by Twilight’s Nikki Reed) and, as usual with bad teen horror movies, display hardly any affection or even basic tolerance toward one another – why are these kids friends? Say what you will about the characterization (or lack thereof) in a Friday the 13th movie, but at least the characters genuinely seem like friends (Final Chapter) or have a reason to be grouped together (i.e. they’re camp counselors).

It doesn’t really matter though, since one of the movie’s few strong points is that it wastes no time killing these schmucks. The first is dispatched 15 minutes in, and another follows every 10 minutes or so after that. And mixed in with these scenes are the ones with the “names” that lend the movie SOME credibility – Keith David and Betsy Russell as a pair of cops investigating the murders, Brad Dourif as an anti-technology professor, and Bai Ling as – oh wait, she’s not actually in the movie, even though she’s in the credits. This is what we’re dealing with here, folks.

To be fair, some of the kills are cool – I like that the killer used chains for all of them, including one where he tears a guy’s head apart by wrapping a chain link around his mouth and pulling back (though this appears to be a reshoot of some sort, since the cops come on the scene and point out that he’s missing some teeth – he’s missing his entire head!!!). There’s also a crushing (an engine hung up by those darn chains falls on a guy) that’s pretty well done – the FX guys on this movie were the only ones who knew what they were doing, it seems.

Everyone else? Well, to say they were “inept” might be putting it too lightly – this is one of the sloppiest films I’ve ever seen, theatrical or not. In addition to Bai Ling’s absence, we have numerous editing gaffes, such as the fact that whenever star Nikki Reed is seen typing, the angle on her laptop never has her hands in the shot. The aspect ratio occasionally changes to scope for some reason, and in the middle of a slide show about technology (photos of cell phones, satellites, etc), there’s a shot of a starving African child. Director/co-writer Deon Taylor seemingly doesn’t know the first thing about suspense or even coherence; in one extreme example, the killer instantly drops chains (from the roof) onto the kid who just deleted the Chain Letter – was he just hanging out up there all day waiting for the kid to delete it? And he tosses in the “Vertigo” shot at the most random place possible, plus indulges in other “look at me!” camera tricks (swirly-cam, bizarrely stretched out shots during a rather bland phone conversation – I’m shocked there’s no snorri-cam), all in a failed effort to make the film look exciting.

It’s also hilariously incomplete – we learn that there’s actually a cult of anti-technology people, and that two of the adult characters were part of it, presented in a Saw-like editing montage of footage we already saw, with Betsy Russell repeating “They’re a cult!” over and over, but this cult is never exposed, their members are never revealed to anyone but the audience, and it’s not even clear if the killer was part of the cult or not. And why does the Chain Man kidnap a random student (one who also deleted the Chain Letter) and leave him hanging around for the whole movie? Maybe Bai Ling knows.

Christ, the movie doesn’t even have a climax (minor spoilers ahead)! The final protagonist never fights the Chain Man, or even runs from him – she just gets caught, and we learn that she’s the one in the trap we saw at the beginning of the film (smart – use the film’s only good moment twice!), except this time we actually see the outcome. And that’s it; the movie doesn’t conclude, it merely stops. I’m all for a grim ending, but there has to be SOMETHING resolved; cancelled TV shows have more closure in their final broadcasts than this movie does. You’d think in the three years that it sat on the shelf that someone might have suggested actually filming an ending before releasing it to theaters.

The DVD provides exactly what the movie deserves: nothing. Not even the trailer. Oddly, the standard DVD carries an “unrated” cut that runs about 2 minutes longer than the R rated cut, which is what you get on Blu-ray. Since I tried blocking the movie from my memory (as well as walked out twice; once to check how big the crowd was for Hatchet II, the other to splash water in my face to keep from falling asleep), I’m not sure what has been added/changed, but it’s just as bad as I remember, which is all that matters. At any rate, I’m not sure why they would make the standard DVD a more attractive purchase/rental, but on the other hand, it’s actually quite fitting for this illogical and pointless movie.

Official Score