Director: Alexis Wajsbrot, Damien Mace
Writer: Joe Johnson
Producer: Romain Philippe, Olivier Philippe, Jason Newmark, Laurie Cook, Farah Abushwesha, Alexis Wajsbrot, Damien Mace
Stars: Gregg Sulkin, Garrett Clayton, Bella Dayne, Sienna Guillory
Two teenage pranksters have the tables turned on them when a mysterious phone call spirals into a night of terror.
You know those challenges on reality TV competitions where a contestant starts from an idea requiring less creativity and seemingly less effort than his/her counterparts? The kind of concept so dangerously simple in approach, it appears certainly doomed for disapproval by the judges? The mere act of even proposing the project inspires a Glenn Hetrick or a Gordon Ramsay to arch his eyebrows and cock his head with the highly skeptical warning, “ok, but if you’re going to be this basic, you’d better hope you’re perfect.”
That’s the dare accepted by “Don’t Hang Up.” The premise isn’t particularly fresh. The twists aren’t exactly inventive. The movie isn’t aggressive about being bold. As “madman tormenting teenagers” thrillers go, “Don’t Hang Up” follows formula to the letter, making it the filmic equivalent of a zombie makeup on “Face Off” or a white rice risotto on “MasterChef.”
The thing is, everything is executed so slickly and so well, familiar flavor doesn’t matter. “Don’t Hang Up” inauspiciously steps up to the plate in a plain pinstripe uniform, sizes up a straightforward swing, and then smashes a screaming shot of strong suspense right over the wall.
Best buds Brady and Sam are privileged jackasses. They wag tongues at women, scoff at strangers with insulting put-downs, and misbehave like insufferable a-holes. You’ll roll eyes exactly as expected, though Garrett Clayton in particular is so infectiously immature as Brady, a strange charisma is crafted, keeping the duo from being totally intolerable.
Likable isn’t the right descriptor. Neither is charming. Brady is crude, callous, and selfish. Yet it’s difficult to fully despise him because the appealing absurdity of his rudeness is amusing as a fictional caricature. For a movie built on a pair of buffoonish “bros” as central figures, their obnoxiousness is nowhere near as off-putting as it could/should be.
Brady and Sam are part of a four-person collective captained by Roy, aka “Prankmonkey69” if you needed additional evidence of their douchebaggery. The quartet recently became YouTube famous after a prank phone call successfully convinced a frightened mother that she and her daughter were in fatal danger from a home intruder. That video went viral and the boys have been going hard at the Jerky Boys game ever since.
Home alone for the weekend, Sam is distressed over trouble in Camelot with his girlfriend Peyton. Brady’s idea for a cheer-up session involves pizza, beer, and more prank phone calls to let those who dare answer know what small genitalia they have.
Not long into the night, Brady and Sam unexpectedly end up on the receiving end for a change, and this dose of their own medicine does not taste good. Someone doesn’t find their antics as harmlessly hilarious as they do, so it is time to turn the tables. Brady and Sam are initially dismissive of this unknown caller. But when mysterious “Mr. Lee” reveals names, numbers, and intimate details of the boys’ personal lives, the flustered friends realize this is not a random act of nonsense. Mr. Lee has a very sharp ax to grind, and his pernicious plan is just getting started.
“Don’t Hang Up” makes no attempt to hide its influences, e.g. “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” though it tethers itself to 1990s touchstones without being overly on the nose about it. A side effect is that the screenplay bothers itself with derivative developments including backstabbing bullsh*t and a “surprise” setup concerning a masked attacker that absolutely everyone will see coming ahead of schedule. But even when “Don’t Hang Up” is predictable, it is still entertaining.
“Don’t Hang Up” features the kind of horror movie adversary with a scheme so convolutedly complicated, it comes complete with convenient contingencies requiring events to play out precisely as anticipated. Alfred Hitchcock would have a coronary over the excessive employment of “refrigerator logic” glossing over how improbable, and unnecessary, it would be to pull off a plan of such proportions. At the same time, Hitchcock might award a thumbs up for rendering the disbelief unimportant through unrelenting cinematic style.
Deep backgrounds in visual effects have granted co-directors Alexis Wajsbrot and Damien Mace deep knowledge about how to fill a frame with energetic imagery, even when scenes are set to simmer with subtlety. In addition to a strong sense of placement, Wajsbrot and Mace squeeze a great deal of smoothness from their fluid camera by keeping it moving, circumventing the stuffiness that can come from using a single, insular location for almost the entirety of the runtime. No matter what is on the screen, the sincerity in the technical approach ensures nothing is ever boring.
Given that both films involve social media-motivated terror and a bullying-gone-wrong via text and video framing device, a close comparative cousin is “Unfriended” (review here). Where that movie’s teenage tone had limited appeal, “Don’t Hang Up” succeeds through engaging acting compensating for clichéd characterizations and effective atmosphere elevating suspense. Turn the lights low, turn the sound up, turn a cheek at the tropes, and “Don’t Hang Up” does not disappoint as a tense chiller that does it by the book, but does it right all the way.
Review Score: 80