Monday 18 August 2014

Panic Button

Director: Chris Crow
Writers: Chris Crow, Frazer Lee, John Shackleton, David Shillitoe
Producer: John Shackleton
Cast: Michael Jibson, Jack Gordon, Elen Rhys, Scarlett Alice Johnson
Country: UK
Year: 2011
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Panic Button is a well-made but unpleasant and ultimately somewhat shallow feature which is primarily notable as the return from the wilderness of Frazer Lee, whose short films On Edge and Red Lines were among the first rays of the dawning British Horror Revival. Lee is one of four credited writers, along with sophomore director Chris Crow, but the inverse square law of writing credits applies (sometimes known as Flintstone’s Law) and sadly the script features a plot which doesn’t make a lot of sense during the film and then falls apart completely, as soon as the credits roll, like a tissue in a rainstorm.

Keeping costs low while maximising on-screen production value, most of the film is four actors in one location, which is the cabin of a luxury private jet. Gwen, Jo, Max and Dave have won a competition organised by massively popular social networking site Facebook All2gethr and their prize is an all-expenses paid trip to New York. Once in the air, they are given a series of tasks by a disembodied voice (and a simplistically animated crocodile on their in-flight movie screens) as part of a ‘game’ which rapidly turns sour.

On first meeting the quartet in a VIP lounge at the airport, the only obviously unpleasant one is Dave (Michael Jibson: Freakdog), a smarmy creep who thinks he’s much funnier than he is. Max (Jack Gordon: Heartless, The Devil’s Business, Truth or Dare) seems pretty relaxed, with his multi-coloured woolly hat; Gwen (Elen Rhys, who was a flight attendant in World War Z) is a bit ditzy; and Jo (Scarlett Alice Johnson: EastEnders, The Reeds) whom we met in a prologue saying goodbye to her daughter, is ‘the sensible one’ I suppose. Real characterisation comes later as all four are forced to admit to character failings: one has an alcohol problem, one has a taste for dodgy Japanese porn etc.

The first act does a good job of establishing the premise as the foursome gradually realise quite how much danger they are in and how helpless they are to do anything except what they’re told. But it’s not just these four: infringements of the rules are punished by the brutal murder of friends/relatives, shown live via handycam. This tips Panic Button over into the genre of torture porn, albeit more in terms of theme than imagery as the killings happen elsewhere and are shown only very briefly in grainy footage (complete with the occasional mandatory BZZZT!). Naturally, the four passengers clash about what to do and naturally the situation on board the plane turns, before too long, to violence.

Chris Crow follows his rural horror debut Devil’s Bridge by swapping the agoraphobia of the wide, Welsh open countryside for the claustrophobia of a single cabin (plus loo) with no possible means of egress. And to his credit he does a good job of keeping the story flowing and the tension rising within the fugue-like limitations of four characters and one set. In this he is greatly helped once again by the cinematography of Simon Poulter who bathes much of the film in the sort of sodium-beige lighting that we associate with the inside of an aircraft. And there is no doubt that the four principal actors do a sterling job, bringing their characters to life and preventing them from being simple cyphers.

Ostensibly Panic Button is about the potential horror of social media: people’s willingness to put every detail of themselves online, and the callous disregard for humanity which reduces other people’s suffering to video clips and LOL comments. The trouble is that, by halfway through the film that side of things is largely forgotten in favour of a simplistic tale of a sadistic control freak forcing people to do horrible things in a desperate attempt to prevent their loved ones being butchered. Which is a lot less interesting. There are horror films to be made about the plague of social media – Backslasher is an example of one that works – but Panic Button ends up using its supposed main theme as little more than a hook on which to hang off-the-shelf violence and fear. There’s no depth to it and it never makes us think anything (except “ooh, that’s nasty” or “well, that person’s an idiot”),

One of the film’s biggest problems is that these four young people, while no angels, are not especially wicked. They haven’t murdered anyone, they haven’t even cyberbullied anyone, they’re just four meaningless individuals in the morass of impersonal crap that is Facebook All2gethr. So the punishments they face are not random but nor are they appropriate to the characters’ transgressions; they come across instead as utterly disproportionate. We can’t really sympathise with the characters but nor can we view their punishment as in any way righteous. The ending does implicate them in something a bit worse than previously revealed but that still doesn’t justify what is done to them and certainly can’t justify the murders of their friends and families. In fact, the ending is the film’s weakest point as it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

It transpires that the voice they hear [spoilers on]  is the father of a teenage girl who committed suicide in front of her webcam, a video clip which these four and a couple of the other victims shared and mocked. But surely they weren’t the only ones? Why these four out of thousands? In a particularly daft-but-not-creepy twist, Jo’s nine-year-old daughter is kidnapped by the grieving father and forced to adopt the identity of his own dead daughter, who was 15. Which is never going to work. We also discover that the plane’s unseen pilot is just as much a victim as the four passengers, forced to fly the aircraft to Norway and there crash it into the Facebook All2gethr headquarters, in order to prevent his own kidnapped family being murdered. None of this stands up at all. Why go to this massive amount of trouble and expense? Why murder Jo’s mum (looking after her grand-daughter) who had no involvement with the website? How has the father gained access to records of every webpage ever viewed or visited by these four? Where has he found the money to not only hire a private jet but also kit it out with all manner of screens and cameras, not to mention a never-explained HAL-like red bulb on the sealed cabin door (there is even a quote from 2001 in the dialogue)?

How did the foursome get through customs at the airport believing that they were flying to New York when the plane was bound for Oslo? Or, if the plane was nominally bound for New York but changed course, why hasn’t it been intercepted once Air Traffic Control spotted it had gone off course? This is ten years after 9/11, after all. If the murders on screen were committed beforehand (as is subsequently revealed when they find bodies in the luggage compartment), how were they not known about? But the fact that Jo’s mum’s body is there implies that the father single-handedly (as his wife and adult son are seen at the airport) tortured and killed several people in different locations during the brief time the quartet were in the VIP lounge and smuggled the bodies onto the plane without any airport staff noticing. Above all, how the hell does the grieving father expect to get away with all this? It’s not like there isn’t a trail: you can’t just have a jet take off from a major British airport without filling in a LOT of forms! Honestly, this plot has [spoilers off] more holes than a string vest.

It looks like the film has been written (or rewritten) backwards, starting with the on-board situation and then finding a justification for the unseen manipulator to do this, and the problem is that when this is retconned into the actual plot, it’s just impossible to believe or accept that this would be the modus operandi of someone in that situation. Plus, as so often, the film relies on fairly intelligent people acting completely stupidly. There is a throw-away line observing how odd it is that there is no stewardess but really that’s a big clue. On a private luxury flight you have flight attendants who attend to your every whim and you would expect to meet them before take-off – and the pilot. And how come no-one questions why a social networking site would have a big publicity-generating competition without taking any pictures or video of the prize-winners, or indeed without ever mentioning it on the actual site or putting out a press release? Yes, it’s one big string vest.

The original story of Panic Button (then titled All2gethr) was a nine-page treatment by producer John Shackleton (who had previously directed a couple of horror shorts with Simon Poulter as DP) and co-producer David Shillitoe. Frazer Lee was brought in to develop this into a screenplay and then Chris Crow was attached, the final credits listing all four gentlemen equally as writers. Interestingly, Julian Richards gets a ‘script consultant’ credit for some unspecified work on the screenplay. It’s a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, I fear, with more people working on the script than characters in it... The film also has the hallmarks of a producer-generated picture: gaping plot-holes which could be ironed out but only by making some fairly fundamental changes to the original premise; changes which presumably weren't an option.

Tim Dickel (Sarah Jane Adventures, Elfie Hopkins) was the production designer with Sian Jenkins (Elfie Hopkins, Bronson) handling costume design. VFX supervisor Bob Thompson, whose work includes some fine shots of the plane in flight, previously wrote and executive produced all three Bionicle features! The rich, fruity voice of the villain is supplied by Joshua Richards who also supplied the rich, fruity voice of Richard Burton in an obscure 2013 biopic. The supporting cast includes Sule Rimi whose BHR credits include Daddy’s Girl, The Machine and Vampire Guitar but who is best known to the nation’s kids as Henry Smart on DNN!  There are nine credited executive producers including Robert Graham (Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection, Amityville Asylum, Valley of the Witch, previously production accountant on The Feral Generation) and John Shackleton’s brother (or dad?) Kevin.

Shot in September 2010, Panic Button premiered at the 2011 Frightfest with a British DVD release from Showbox in November of that year (and simultaneous VOD through Sky Movies Box Office). The American VOD release followed in April 2013 and the US disc finally hit stores one year after that, with a misleading sleeve image and strapline designed to make this look like an airborne slasher, thereby guaranteeing disappointment for a significant section of the audience (good move, Phase 4 Film). A number of other territories picked up the film and there was, somewhat anachronistically, a novelisation (by Frazer Lee, who since Red Lines has been hard at work as a Bram Stoker-nominated horror author). The German DVD copied the UK sleeve design (a montage based, for no obvious reason, around a 35mm camera lens) but managed to include a still from On Edge on the back!

There is no actual panic button anywhere in Panic Button, although the phrase is used once in a throwaway line of dialogue for no apparent reason except to tick that box.

MJS rating: B

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