I’m not a big fan of the Saw movies. It’s not so much that I’m averse to torture porn (just tired of it, really); it’s that I always found the Saw flicks somewhat amateurish. Sure, they look nice enough, I guess (especially if you’re a fan of the whole “sickly green” thing), but I never found them particularly smart, scary, or riveting. To me, they were just a convoluted mess, centered around a preachy antagonist stalking a cast of has-beens and never-weres, and making them run the gauntlet of a warehouse full of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions en route to some sort of moral epiphany. Every film wrapped up in the same way, with a bunch of flashbacks set to super-urgent music in an effort to explain that particular episode’s implausible Scooby Doo-like reveal, where we would meet the next killer-cum-disciple to pick up Jigsaw's mantle.
Of course, I realize these films are very successful, and, as such, highly influential amongst burgeoning auteurs. Many young filmmakers have grown up with the Saw franchise as their creative compass, and, more and more, we’re starting to see films inspired by the series. I’m not talking about lame cash-in flicks hoping to ride the tattered coattails of Saw’s flagging success; I’m talking about movies made by filmmakers who are bonafide fans of Wan and Whannell’s creation. To them, this is what horror’s all about. Fast edits, lots of flashbacks, an overly-complex, sermonizing antagonist employing implausible means of killing their prey, and a story that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Oh, yeah; and green. Lots and lots of green.
Deon Taylor’s Chain Letter makes no attempt to hide it’s influences. To the contrary, his film wears them proudly upon its crimson soaked sleeves. Hell, he’s even got himself a member of the Saw franchise’s cast, including Mrs. Jigsaw, herself, Betsy Russell, and even plays a snippet of the film in the background (ala’ Halloween in Scream) whilst a character receives one of the film’s titular missives. If that’s not enough to clue you in that Taylor really likes the Saw movies, the fact his film opens and ends in EXACTLY the same manner as his inspiration should drive that point home. The one discernible difference between this film and Saw lay with the antagonist as in Chain Letter we get some sort of disfigured technophobic hulk (played by Michael Bailey Smith, and looking like a cross between Darkman and greased-up naked sax guy from The Lost Boys) who sends out a chain letter to a group of completely unsympathetic teenagers, giving them 24 hours to forward it to someone else or die in some unsavory fashion involving - you guessed it - chains! The fact that it takes the kids half the movie to figure out that the deaths of two of their friends has something to do with the chain letter – you know, the one threatening their deaths – is infuriating enough without the addition of a half-baked conspiracy theory (a Y2K cult? REALLY??), incessant use of techno-symbolism, and headache-inducing computer animation meant to symbolize the killer tracking his victims through their phones (using some pretty sophisticated means for a technophobe, might I add). Things get more convoluted as the film progresses, and, just as with Saw, ends in such fashion as to not answer a single question about the killer, his motives, or the fates of a few characters I can only imagine Taylor hopes to bring back for a sequel I pray never gets made.
As you can tell, I pretty much hated everything about this film. It’s a slapdash collection of torture porn clichés married to a plot that reads like the bastard child of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Fear.net, but only half as coherent and neither bad enough to be good or good enough to be tolerable. Here’s a film where seasoned detectives (the ever-reliable Keith David and the sleepwalking Russell) wander into abandoned buildings with no back-up, while a ditzy teenager solves the crime by typing the words “links in a chain” (I shit you not) into some ersatz Google thing, which brings up a link to the super secret Y2K cult’s website. It’s enough to make you shout at the television, and I’m pretty sure I did on numerous occasions.
The cast is a mishmash of fresh faces like Nikki Reed (Twilight) and Noah Segan as well genre stalwarts like the aforementioned David, Brad Douriff, an odd cameo by comedian/actor, Charles Fleischer, and even the old guy from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (the one who’s not R. Lee Ermey), doing the same hard-of-hearing, angry-old-bastard shtick he’s done in everything he’s been in since. With the exception of Russell, who was never a very good actress to begin with, the performances in the film are actually better than your average low-budget horror flick, as are the production values as a whole. The film LOOKS damned good, with some very nice photography courtesy of cinematographer, Phillip Lee, while Taylor shows he certainly has an affinity for the genre, especially during the admittedly well-staged (and gory) death scenes. Sadly, neither can overcome the shortcomings of the film’s disastrous premise and laughably bad script (don’t even get me started on the ADD-style editing), making the all-style, no-substance Chain Letter all the more frustrating.
Image brings Chain Letter to Blu-ray with a somewhat inconsistent transfer that is mostly spectacular, but, at times, devolves into a dark and grainy mess. The opening sequence looks marvelous, boasting an impressive sense of depth and dimension, with subtle details like tiny droplets of blood and the hairs on the killer’s arms really popping. Much of the film is like this, with vibrant colors, rich and inky blacks, and abundant detail, but there are a few scenes where the image just goes “flat”, and there’s evidence of digital compression (especially noticeable in faces) and buzzy grain. I’m not quite certain as to why the quality veers so sharply from one extreme to the other, but it’s definitely noticeable. The 5.1 DTS HD audio track is much more steady, with warm bass, crisp dialogue, and impressive directional cues and atmospheric effects.
As far as extras go, Image didn’t include anything beyond trailers for this release but that’s okay; the only extra I want from this film is an apology.
If you’re a drooling gorehound who is happy just to watch people bleed for 90 or so minutes and don't need a reasonable explanation as to why, you just may enjoy Chain Letter, but anyone looking for more than that should look elsewhere as this is easily one of the most infuriating, meandering, ill-conceived, poorly scripted, and haphazardly edited films I’ve ever had to sit through.