★ / ★★★★
On October 21, 1994, Harlan Diehl (Luke Bonczyk) massacred his entire family with a motive so absent, it shook the entire community. Eighteen years later, Julian (Johnny Pacar) chooses to make a reenactment of the Harlan Diehl murders for a high school video project. With the help of his fun-loving friends (Ambyr Childers, Jennifer Missoni, Jonathan Keltz, Alessandra Torresani), he makes good progress in completing the assignment.
But Julian comes to the conclusion that simply recreating what happened in the farmhouse will not be enough. His gut tells him he needs to do more research so he asks Quinn (Toby Hemingway), a friend who works at the local TV station, to obtain the actual video of the crime.
“Playback,” written and directed by Michael A. Nickles, has the potential to be creepy if it had chosen to tell a straightforward story about a dark history in a small town. Instead, the picture is plagued with distractingly flowery camerawork, from split-screens and manic cuts to shaking of the camera until our heads spin.
It tested my patience so intensely that I began to notice things silly things like the age of the cast. They are supposed to be playing high school students but they look and act like they are in their mid-twenties. It does not help that not one of them has an acne breakout or is moody enough to convince us that their hormones are running amok. While the guys can pass as catalogue models, the girls are actually quite stunning. Julian’s girlfriend might be able to book work as a high fashion model given the right make-up and attire in front of the camera.
Speaking of make-up, it is utilized so laughably, it takes away whatever tension—a very small amount in the first place—that the film manages to capture. You see, Quinn is eventually possessed by a psychic energy from the raw footage of the Harlan Diehl murders. The evil force controls him and as the picture goes on, his desperation and level of evil are marked by the thickness of the make-up on the actor’s face. At some point, I just started laughing to myself because it looked like Quinn’s face is dunked in powdered white chalk. I was at such a loss on how or why the filmmakers convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to make the villain, a supposedly scary figure, look absolutely ridiculous.
And then there is the casting of Christian Slater as Frank Lyons, a cop who gets off sexually on watching high school girls through the secret cameras he hires Quinn to install in their bedrooms and locker rooms. Slater is not given anything to do. His character could have been played by anybody and it would not have made a difference.
The unfocused and slothful writing mixed with incomprehensible direction sink a project that could have been morbid, fun, or both. I did like one scene, however, in which Julian asks one of his friends to review the reenacted footage he has so far. Nate claims that the shakiness of the camera is headache-inducing while Julian argues that it is supposed to give the material a certain level of energy. I found its self-awareness amusing, but it is unfortunate that the filmmakers do not take advantage of its potentially smart set-up.
I had no problem buying into the material’s supernatural elements–even if they look so unbelievable. But since the realism is not available as a cushion when or if the audience decide to take that leap of faith, then it is most understandable to feel like we have wasted our time.