Chatrooms have been making waves in the press for years, the Daily Mail warning us off their dangers and how they represent all of the ills of the modern world, young girls being told to avoid them at all costs, sites where suicide pacts are agreed online. I suppose it’s surprising that there haven’t been more films on the subject. In fact, nothing immediately springs to mind. So horror is once again the pioneer, the genre that leads the way and is the first to explore a phenomenon.
Based on a play written by Enda Walsh (who also wrote the Bobby Sands film hunger) it is essentially a tense thriller set inside the strange and mysterious world of the internet chatroom. 5 strangers come together in a room named ‘Chelsea Teens!’, created by William (Aaron Johnson) and they begin to share their thoughts and feelings but slowly different agendas start to come to the fore and tension simmers as their lives are affected and become intwined.
The first obstacle for Nakata and co to address was how to portray a chatroom on screen, and in fairness to them they do a fine job. Colourful, yet worn hotel-like corridors symbolise the search for a suitable room, while heavy, wooden doors with windows and names scrawled on across them symbolise the chatrooms themselves. When the characters interact in the rooms, they are simply sat there talking to one another, like in a therapy session I suspect this had been taken from the stage performance as it is such a simple idea, but it really does work.
Other than that though, the film is essentially a bit of a mess. Some of it hits the mark yet some elements really don’t work.
It’s the first half of the film that does work, the plot unfolding slowly, really keeping me engaged. You learn about the characters as they gradually reveal themselves to each other with snippets of their past and dreams as the trust becomes stronger, the action hops between real life and the world inside the internet while their online avatars are what the isolated real personalities crave to be. William and Eva (Poots) play games with the others, suggesting they do things against their character, acts of random violence, resisting the urge to take their medication. These moments are really interesting, exploring how vulnerable people can be, how they will place trust in people too easily and how online relationships are so easily misconstrued. This is clearly the issues that the play sought to look at and it’s nice that these are transported to the screen.
Nakata is a horror director though. And he wants this to be a horror film. Perhaps a bit too much. As the film wears on and murder becomes the order of the day, it loses a lot of the tension that is created by the sinister, yet small, suggestions that cause the characters so much angst. Once the puppet master element is lost it becomes a simple case of ‘stop the killer’, and the hops between online/reality become more clunky and start to grate, until it results in a straightforward chase through Camden Market with a finale that is meant to be far more powerful and shocking than it actually is.
Aaron Johnson is excellent, and is definitely destined for big things, and Imogen Poots is very good, but the other members of the cast, Matthew Beard, Hannah Murray and Daniel Kaluuya are perfectly adequate but far from stand out. Nakata’s handling of the film is very polished, the online world looking excellent and a stark contrast in colour to the reality. Nakata also uses stop-motion animation bravely and it looks very good, but doesn’t quite fit with the film.
So, a good idea of a film is in there, somewhere, it’s presented in a polished way, with a cast that has a lot of potential, but it doesn’t quite sit right. It’s nice to see a film that at least tries to do something interesting and be creative and there is plenty in there to enjoy but lets be honest, I should not be getting twitchy and looking at my watch in a 97 minute film.