Studio: Heretic Entertainment
Director: Matthew Solomon
Writer: Matthew Solomon, Jeremy Fox, Joshua Carl Allen
Producer: Stefan Jacobs, Matthew Solomon
Stars: Brady Smith, Sarena Khan, Richard Hatch, Alison Haislip, Tohoru Masamune, Laura Niles, Pete Capella, P.J. Marshall, Sadie Ella Solomon
While being monitored by a Homeland Security agent, the video chats of a husband in Los Angeles and a wife in London become haunted by a little girl’s ghost.
While his lovely wife Laura remains in London wrapping a job assignment, film composer David starts settling into the couple’s new Hollywood home alone. 5,000+ miles of distance is no match for modern technology here. Through the wonders of webcams and the power of Skype, the couple remains in constant communication, updating each other with respective daily recaps and regular affirmations of long-distance affection.
One thing David intentionally neglects to disclose is that the realtor who sold him their L.A. house is a possibly-obsessive old flame. That may mot be why he got such a great deal on new digs though. When Laura spies dark shapes in the shadows behind David, and mysterious events plague the pair’s monitors as well as their minds, it becomes clear that ex-girlfriend Alex sold David a notorious haunted house.
“Chatter” is far from the first film to take cameras out of the woods and asylums to mount them on computers for a technological take on the “found footage” formula. Making it more engaging than most is a pair of performances giving David and Laura a striking amount of chemistry for a couple whose entire onscreen relationship is limited to videochat.
David is introduced as too nondescript to ping a radar. But the more time spent with him, the more actor Brady Smith pulls his personality up from plain to pretty affable for an average nice guy. Boston native Sarena Khan anchors the other end with the most convincing British accent in a westerner since Jordan Gavaris of “Orphan Black.”
The premise of “Chatter” makes for less than ideal acting conditions, yet Smith and Khan turn in terrific authenticity. Despite being on separate cameras and having to act opposite each other through monitors, their reactions read as real, and that connection makes their plight frightening when bumps in the night threaten to disturb more than sleep.
Speaking of authenticity, of the countless complaints leveled against “found footage,” one pertains to fiction versus fact between cameras used onscreen and cameras used for actual filming. Depict a character holding an early generation iPhone, but shoot the scene with a $15,000 4k camera, and watch entitled cinema nerds wag a finger at the discrepancy.
“Chatter” makes a case for why such cheats are necessary. To state it simply and without eloquence, a picture-in-picture Skype chat shot over webcam looks like sh*t on a big screen. We’re talking big blocks of pixilated artifacts, not the kind of digital noise added for effect. The look might accurately represent realistic conditions, but as a theater experience, “Chatter” is undeniably ugly.
That criticism might be neither here nor there. “Chatter” is a microbudget thriller destined to be seen almost exclusively in homes anyway, where its aesthetic is less of a distraction and perhaps even an enhancement to the scares. “Chatter” features plenty of fuzzy frights and “what was that?” creeps which, at a reduced size in particular, have an infectious way of making David and Laura’s paranormal home invasion feel all the more harrowing.
Ideally, this review would end right here. “Chatter” could go home with a higher rating and readers could have a recommendation for an entertaining, though unessential, “found footage” chiller. But everything above does not encompass everything “Chatter” includes.
“Chatter” is discontent to settle for a slight edge in the subgenre by being one of a few computer-framed first-person horror films. So in lengthening his 2011 short film “Anna,” co-writer/director Matthew Solomon goes further by tacking on wraparound segments featuring lone Homeland Security agent Martin Takagi, who sits in a seat and silently watches David and Laura’s cursed drama unfold as an eavesdropping government goon snooping for his own amusement.
Labeling these segments as unnecessary undersells how horribly out of place the agent’s scenes are. Unsurprisingly filmed in one day, since he always wears the same blue shirt and vest despite the progression of days in the story, Martin’s repeated insertions into the narrative are the equivalent of a lead boot on a brake pedal.
Martin impacts the story in no way at all, not even peripherally. He isn’t even a character. Martin has no arc of his own, never interacts with primary personalities, and functions exclusively as a set of empty eyes mirroring what the viewer is already doing. The pointlessness is so painfully obvious that there are legitimate questions to be asked regarding why anyone opted to keep these meaningless moments in the movie.
With an already short runtime, smart money suggests that David and Laura’s arc never had the legs to take the film to feature length. That would also explain why Richard Hatch of “Battlestar Galactica” and Alison Haislip appear in an equally pointless prelude. Name-recognition aside, Hatch and Haislip’s inclusion makes even less sense retroactively once the backstory factors in, removing their brief scene so far from the main narrative that it may as well have come from a different project. Maybe it did.
“Chatter” is two-thirds of a respectable effort mauled by an additional third of valueless content. Likable leads and effective fleeting shadow spooks initially lean it in a favorable direction. Then a superfluous framing device chewing at chapter breaks leans it right back the wrong way, preventing the movie from attracting as many interested eyes as it could have.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 55