'Ratter': Slamdance Review

Courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival
When cyber-stalking is taken to extremes

Ashley Benson gives a striking performance as the target of an anonymous hacker in Branden Kramer’s ingenious debut feature

The risks inherent in our Internet-connected lives are brought into sharp focus by Ratter, a bracingly effective low-budget suspenser. The title is a derivation of the acronym for a type of malware known as a Remote Access Trojan, an unwittingly downloaded program that provides a hacker with undetected access to a user’s Internet-enabled devices. The ratter can then manipulate programs and files, as well as operate camera and microphone functions, enabling video and audio access to the victim’s activities.

Shooting exclusively from the perspective of these types of devices, writer-director Branden Kramer achieves a disturbingly intimate invasion of privacy that gradually escalates from uncomfortably creepy to potentially lethal. Although the film demonstrates a natural affinity for digital distribution, theatrical exhibition may offer unique opportunities as well. 

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Determined to make a fresh start as she moves from the Midwest to rent a spacious Brooklyn apartment and begin grad school, Emma (Ashley Benson) never suspects that everything she does within view of her laptop, phone or webcam is being watched and recorded by an unknown stalker who has electronically hijacked her devices. Whether she’s prepping meals in her kitchen, settling into bed at night or showering with her laptop playing music in the background, Emma’s always-online lifestyle is fully revealed to the ratter.

At the same time, she begins receiving random blocked calls and text messages, which her friend Nicole (Rebecca Naomi Jones) dismisses as typical misdialed numbers and tech glitches. When her laptop starts acting up, Emma takes it to a repair shop but apparently there’s nothing amiss, although she does change her passwords as a precaution. An unexpected call from a blocked number turns out to be her jilted, bitter her ex-boyfriend Alex (Michael Freeman), leading Emma to wonder if he’s the one who’s been anonymously harassing her.

She dismisses the thought however, since things are going so well with Michael (Matt McGorry), the new guy she’s been dating, until an online chat session becomes way too creepy and Emma breaks things off, concerned that even he might be targeting her. It’s all part of the ratter’s escalating plan to isolate her from friends and family, even as he becomes more aggressive, breaking into her apartment and observing her while she sleeps. As his threatening behavior escalates and Emma’s stress level spikes, her parents urge her to move to a new apartment, but with the ratter monitoring her every move, message and phone call, a change of location isn’t likely to provide much respite or increased security.

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In a selfie-obsessed culture motivated by the urge to document everything and perhaps even achieve fleeting viral celebrity, the unpleasant possibilities articulated by Kramer’s ingeniously crafted script are alarmingly immediate and unnervingly reinforced by news accounts of hijacked webcams and hacked cellphones betraying unsuspecting users. Meticulously scripting the action to transpire entirely within view of one or another of Emma’s devices, Kramer and cinematographer Stefan Haverkamp develop a distinct visual grammar appropriate to the often-limited features of personal electronics.

Despite their fixed positions and constrained fields of view, editor Shelby Siegel nimbly cuts together the angles captured by a variety of devices in Emma’s vicinity to provide adequate coverage and continuity, only rarely contradicting the logic of the filmmakers' vision.

By necessity, Benson appears in nearly every scene, adeptly carrying the film almost solo while evincing a specifically telegenic style of performance necessitated by her frequent interaction with cellphones and laptop screens. Cloaked in shadows, the ratter only briefly appears onscreen, although his presence can be sensed throughout the film as he singlemindedly manipulates the cameras observing Emma. Only the harrowing final scene reveals the extremity of his determination to fulfill his proclivities in a shocking display of unrestrained compulsion.

Cast: Ashley Benson, Matt McGorry, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Freeman

Director-writer: Branden Kramer

Producers: Ben Browning, Jamie Zelermyer, David Bausch

Executive producers: Michael Maher, Matt Levin, Sarah Shepard, Evelynda Rivera, Stefan Haverkamp, Jan Jaworski, Thomas Kropp

Director of photography: Stefan Haverkamp

Production designer: Kate Duffy

Costume designer: David Tabbert

Editor: Shelby Siegel

Music: Jennifer Towle

 

No rating, 80 minutes

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