'Bedeviled': Film Review

BEDEVILED - Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Brad Brizendine/Freestyle Digital Media
A routine teen thriller with some deeply dumb plot points.

Teenagers realize their phones are making life hell in Abel and Burlee Vang's thriller.

Filmmaking brothers Abel and Burlee Vang hope to reinvent boogeyman-centric thrillers in Bedeviled, in which an artificially intelligent phone app outgrows its users' devices and comes to menace them in the flesh. Heavily influenced by A Nightmare on Elm Street by way of the Ring series, the picture contains some of the makings of a successful fright flick and is acted by a competent ensemble. But its central conceit is so nonsensical that even devoted horror buffs may balk, making it a tough sell in theatrical bookings. Any homevid shelf life will probably also be short.

Lindsay Lohan look-alike Saxon Sharbino plays Alice, the best friend of a girl who died suddenly, leaving a group of buddies who mourn her loss but display remarkably little curiosity about what killed her. Shortly after the event, Alice and the girl's boyfriend Cody (Mitchell Edwards) get messages on their phones inviting them to download an app. The invites come from the dead girl, which causes no alarm — anyone raised in the age of automated friend requests or LinkedIn spam understands that, in social media, death is not the end.

They and three other friends download the app, which initially seems to be a Siri-like assistant. It can answer homework questions, turn on home appliances or recommend nearby restaurants. It can also, as the youths will soon learn, upload homemade sex tapes to Instagram without your permission.

If this smarmily menacing AI, which calls itself Mr. Bedevil (Jordan Essoe), contained its mischief-making to the digital arena, that would likely suffice to work some viewers into a low-level panic. But the Vangs are after more palpable scares, and immediately confuse their techno-terror with the supernatural. Much like Freddy Krueger, we're told, Mr. Bedevil lives on his victims' fear. He also shares a tendency to overact (though his one-liners aren't as memorable as Freddy's) and, when he appears to our heroes in bodily form, his long waggling fingers look as much as Mr. Krueger's as possible without inviting a lawsuit.

As Mr. Bedevil torments the friends in the real world, the film's action beats resemble those in any other spooky-stalker pic. But the talk of how to beat him has a goofiness all its own. One brainstorming session sounds like a handwringing newspaper editorial about contemporary culture: "So maybe — maybe our obsession with technology is causing us to project our own subconscious fears!" Cody concludes.

Cody is something of a hacker — the movie contains more uses of the word "firmware" than a subreddit devoted to jailbreaking your iPhone — and he will eventually be the mastermind of an attempt to beat Bedevil at his own game. But by the time he dreams it up, the villain's behavior is so untethered from real circuits and networks we can hardly expect him to succeed.

Production companies: Badlands Features, Circle 18, Standoff Pictures
Distributor: Freestyle Digital Media
Cast: Saxon Sharbino, Mitchell Edwards, Carson Boatman, Victory Van Tuyl, Brandon Soo Hoo, Jordan Essoe
Directors-screenwriters: Abel Vang, Burlee Vang
Producers: Kirk Roos, Abel Vang, Burlee Vang, Cheng Yang, Leng Yang
Executive producers: Scott P. Barlow, Brad Brizendine, Stephen Stanley, Fuabkuab Yang
Director of photography: Jimmy Jung Lu
Production designer: Samantha Nicoletti
Costume designer: Liz Xiong
Editor: Cole Duran
Composer: David C. Williams

Rated R, 90 minutes