'Chain Letter' is a staggeringly, nearly comically inept horror movie that tries to, in one swoop, capture the computer-frenzy zeitgeist of American teens while also serving up buckets of blood in a shameless bid for the "torture porn" market. And I say "nearly comically" because the movie is so God-awfully serious that no one in the movie or the audience, would even dare to crack a smile. As we all know: there's a difference between laughing with something and laughing at something.
The movie begins with a typically torture porn-y set-up: a woman wakes up covered in duct tape, so much so that we can't really identify her. She's screaming, helplessly (since the duct tape covers her mouth), and she's in a darkened garage. Slowly we realize that she's chained up too, and that the chains are attached to the cars of a couple, both of them on the way to work. See, once they part ways at the end of the driveway, she'll be ripped in two! Can you imagine it? I can. And it's pretty boring.
Of course she gets vivisected, complete with the wet splat of fake blood, at which point we smash cut to some awful credits, which look like they were conjured up on iMovie. The title card is immediately followed by an even-more-amateurish sequence in which clumsily edited "news footage," complete with "anchor commentary" is superimposed over actual footage and cheesy things like micro-chips and photos of the Unabomber. It looks like something that would be flying across the screen in Richard Kelly's 'Southland Tales,' except without any of the wink-wink cleverness. This is just ponderous and thudding. About the only good thing about it is that it announces the muddled mixture of horror and bizarre computer-age commentary, both of which are never really reconciled, within themselves or in the context of each other. It's so dumb.
A few minutes (although it feels like eons) later, we get the basic set-up of 'Chain Letter:' there's a mysterious chain letter that's sent out via email (and text, even though everyone's phones looks like they were purchased in the mid-90s) to a group of teens, led by the plucky Nikki Reed from 'Thirteen.' Soon enough (this is a horror movie), the teens start getting carved up one-by-one. It was at this point that I was totally confused – is the chain letter magic? Is this some kind of "death's design" story, like the infinitely more entertaining 'Final Destination' films? And what the hell does the technology rundown at the beginning of the movie have to do with some insane killer?
Well, my questions were never answered, but after a few more cheesy murder sequences (like a giant engine getting dropped on a dude), Keith David and (from the 'Saw' series) Betsy Russell show up to investigate the murders. In one particularly hilarious bit, Keith David is forced to scream over the rain machines, interrogating kids at a funeral. It's then that the movie reached a level of Ed Woodian ineptitude, and I started feeling sorry for the talented members of the cast (Brad Dourif shows up as a Luddite high school teacher). Every time David would show up on screen I'd just hum his great song from 'The Princess & the Frog,' which did a lot to ease the pain.
By the time 'Chain Letter' reached its grisly conclusion (shocker: the final scene is the first scene – so why did they have to replay the entire painful thing?), I was even more confused than I was when the thing started. Something about a bunch of anti-technology murderers using the chain letter to target people, but what about the fact that chain letters are supposed to be passed along? How many killers are out there? And how many people are getting deathly spam? It makes negative sense; it's criminally stupid.
Not even those of us who have a high threshold for cheesy horror movie theatrics could go for this, even if you fancy yourself an aficionado of the torture porn genre (I love the 'Hostel' films but those are more horror-comedies than the much more humorless torture porn thread). No. This is bargain basement, bottom-shelf bullshit, that isn't worth your time, or anyone else's. You know that 'Let Me In' is on Blu-ray too, right?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Chain Letter' arrives in high-definition on a 25GB Blu-ray disc (nothing but the best for this crap), which automatically plays once you pop it on. Once the disc starts up you'll be treated to an absolutely miserable collection of trailers that appear, based on their video quality, to have been duped using my childhood Betamax player. Apparently there's an "unrated" version on the DVD but we're saddled with the plain old R-rated version here, which means we're actually getting less of the movie, which is probably incentive enough to go with the Blu-ray if you ever hate yourself enough to want to watch this thing. It is Region-A locked.
God, this MPEG-4 encoded, 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is just terrible. I'm sorry, but there's really no two ways about it. This is just terrible looking. But, you know, maybe it's appropriate given the source material.
Clearly, 'Chain Letter' was made on the cheap (its reported budget was a mere $3 million) but it doesn't mean it has to LOOK this awful. 'Winter's Bone' was made for a million dollars less, and that movie has a totally unique, gorgeous look. 'Winter's Bone' is lacquered in the kind of atmosphere and ambience that 'Chain Letter' only dreams of. But then again, 'Winter's Bone' was made by artists, and 'Chain Letter' seems to have been constructed by bored college students who thought it would be "really cool" to make a movie like 'Saw.'
But I'm getting off track. Nuts-and-bolts-wise, 'Chain Letter' is an absolute disaster. Since this is a horror movie, many sequences are shot in the dark (or semi-dark), with an emphasis on shadows and, often times, rain. This would be okay if the movie was clogged with glitchy technical issues like artifacts and an excessive amount of grain. Everything looks mushy and soft, with skin tones looking drained of color, detail being indifferent-to-okay, and black levels rarely reaching any level of sublime inkiness.
The visual muddiness of 'Chain Letter' probably pretty fairly represents how it looked to the poor souls who saw the movie in the theater, but that's not an excuse. And the frequent technical issues, undoubtedly a casualty of the smallness of the disc, only add insult to grievous injury. I can't imagine that this looks any better than the DVD (and on the DVD you'll get to see the uncut version! Lucky you!)
Just as lazy and half-assed is 'Chain Letter's' DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Oof. This thing is a dog.
There is, at least, some attempt to make this mix more than merely crappy, but those attempts are done in such a perfunctory manner as to make things even worse. For example, there's all sorts of atmospheric bullshit in the movie – thunder clashes, rain pours down, a spooky killer lurks in a garage – but none of these effects are done with much aplomb or with an interest in amping up the tension or sound field's dynamism. Instead, they just plunk across the sound field, sometimes bumping into dialogue (like in the scene where Keith David has to shout over the rain), or sometimes overwhelming it – a lot of the times I had to turn up my system to hear dialogue, only to get bashed over the head by some overbearing sound effect when I did.
The soft, sometimes unintelligible dialogue is the icing on the poisonous cake, with few instances of dynamic surround sound support, besides the appearance of the titular chains. God this movie is so stupid. Talking about it for this long is giving me a headache. The sound mix, like the video quality, is a fair representation of how terrible the movie is, but that shouldn't be seen as any kind of an excuse.
While there's only one audio option, there are subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
I've never been so happy to have so few special features on a disc. As soon as this movie was over, I thought to myself, "If I have to watch this thing again with a commentary track, I'm going to freak." Thankfully, this wasn't a problem, although I probably would have watched the commentary if it was hosted by Joe Bob Briggs. I love that man.
If I haven't made it abundantly clear, I hated, hated, hated 'Chain Letter.' It's the kind of lowest-common-denominator horror trash that I can't even imagine the lowest-common-denominator viewer enjoying to any discernable degree. A crass, dunderheaded melding of techno-thriller and torture porn, it's an incomprehensible mess from start-to-finish and an absolute chore to sit through. There are a bunch of other horror movies on Blu-ray that demand your attention before this one, namely 'Piranha 3D' and 'Jennifer's Body.' Just avoid this thing at all costs, not that the anemic special features and below-grade audio and video won't make you avoid it like the plague already. Absolutely terrible.