Actually, for the first time NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES is a bit of a misnomer. While Chris Crow’s terrific PANIC BUTTON was made on a low-budget by Hollywood standards (reported to be about £300,000), it reveals little of its budgetary restrictions with a top-notch cast and bang-on production values which easily stand-up against the horror films currently haunting your local cinema. In fact, this British shot shocker – SAW is an easy comparison point, with a unique game-show style twist – has style to spare, and was awfully refreshing considering the depths of depravity I’ve been soaking in for these past few months. While currently lacking a North American release, this tight, clever thriller is worth going out of your way to see.
The plot is disarmingly simple. Four young Brits from a variety of backgrounds have won a trip – all expenses paid to New York – from Social Networking site ALL2GETHR (an obvious Facebook analogue). We know little about their personal histories, but each soon show some defining elements: Jo (Scarlett Alice Johnson) is a good humored single mother, Max (Jack Gordon) is young and excitable, Dave (Michael Jibson) is soon to be married and is a bit of a dick, while Gwen (Elen Rhys) is playful and flirty. However, these expectations are soon subverted once they hop on their private jet and are soon given the opportunity to win FABULOUS PRIZES simply by answering the increasingly personal questions of a cartoon alligator avatar (voiced by Joshua Richards). Things quickly turn menacing as the questions begin to reveal some dark secrets, and wrong answers (or refusing to play) leads to their friends and loved ones being murdered in various gruesome ways. Ick. It’s up to the four to win the game, and find out the motivations behind their capture, before time runs out.
PANIC BUTTON plays with our natural unease and uncertainty about the safety and privacy of the information which we reveal about ourselves on social networks. Even a cursory look at the news reveals endless stories of data-mining, targeted advertising, bullying, cyber-stalking and other major concerns, and director Crow rightfully plays into our fears by taking the exploitation of personal information to its logical – if exaggerated – extreme. The four characters are believable and – generally – likeable, and many of their revealed flaws are things that those raised in the information age can relate to. Thankfully, the social networking aspect isn’t labored upon with post-modern dialogue, but instead simply provides a unique stage for clever, intriguing set-pieces.
Of course, with this small of a cast the performances are absolutely key. Crow has put together a top-notch ensemble of actors who manage to transcend what could have been something dry and stagey with nuanced and emotional performances. I was particularly impressed by Jack Gordon as Max, who reveals more depth to his character than might be initially expected and proves to easy handle some of the more intense moments in the film’s second half. However, the film lives and dies by Joshua Richards’ performance as the voice of the Alligator avatar. Richards’ voice has the ability to switch from typical cheerful gameshow host to nearly impossibly menacing on a dime. No mean feat, and despite being almost entirely unseen the voice provides a threatening anchor that keeps the tension building to the appropriately unhinged finale.
While the SAW comparisons are easy to make, PANIC BUTTON proves to be a much more restrained affair, eschewing Grand Guignol violence for a more eerie and contained story. In fact, while there are scenes of intense violence, they are rarely lingered upon, and the first person nature of these attacks tend to be quite unsettling. While the “ripped from the headlines” elements occasionally feel a bit cheesy – the opening title promising that what we’re about to see is based on true events is a stretch – it’s all good, clean, engaging fun that makes the most of its brief 90 minute run-time.
Much more than simply a British variation on the SAW franchise, PANIC BUTTON takes an interesting premise to its logical extreme, and targets many of its social-networking addicted viewers in the process. While some of its ideas are a tad half-baked, the excellent performances and taut direction makes for an enjoyable, consistently thrilling horror film that puts most of its big-budget brethren to shame. Sadly, it currently has no North American distribution, but hopefully that will be remedied in the very near future – PANIC BUTTON is worth going out of your way to check out.
Two Nightmares out of Five – SHOCKING SUCCESS
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill MeScott Phillips
Join us this week for and interview with PANIC BUTTON director Chris Crowe
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