‘Don't Hang Up’: LAFF Review

DON’T HANG UP -still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of LA Film Festival
A cautionary tale that’s not much worth telling.

Alexis Wajsbrot and Damien Mace’s directorial debut is an internet-enabled home-invasion thriller.

Between the proliferation of reality TV shows and the ubiquity of malicious internet memes, pranking has sunk to the level of lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Now anybody with a mean streak and a smartphone or laptop can publicly embarrass friends, family and strangers with the click of a camera and a few keys. In Don’t Hang Up, internet pranking reaches deadly extremes, but in this case it’s too superficial a concept to make for much of a thriller, which requires a more immersive experience than the film can deliver.

High-schoolers Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett Clayton) spend more time devising elaborate prank phone calls than they do on more typical teenage diversions. Their often involved and sometimes risky practical jokes include not only the usual unwelcome pizza orders for unsuspecting neighbors, but also impersonating law enforcement officers in violent-crime situations. Recording audio and video to post online after concluding their hijinks, the kids have cultivated an eager group of social media followers as fond of impersonal humiliation as they are.

Both are so full of themselves it never occurs to them that someone might be about to turn the tables. So when a mysterious and threatening stranger calls the home phone at Brady’s house, where the number is blocked, they suddenly realize they may not be invincible. In fact, they may be in very real danger, as the caller demands their attention, revealing the violent extremes he’s willing to employ to prevent them from disconnecting his call. Identifying himself only as “Mr. Lee” (Parker Sawyers), their unseen manipulator seems to know everything about them, as he methodically works the guys into a suspenseful frenzy, determined to extract retribution before they’re able to reveal his identity. 

Prior experience as visual effects supervisors turns out to be of limited usefulness for first-time feature directors Alexis Wajsbrot and Damien Mace, who rely primarily on the practical location of a single-family home to set the action. Joe Johnson’s script for his home-invasion thriller deploys remote technology and internet connectivity to wreak havoc through a series of quickly escalating incidents involving assaults, hostages and the imperilment of Sam’s on-and-off girlfriend Peyton (Bella Dayne), who’s coincidentally debating whether she really wants to date him any longer.

Once the guys figure out how Mr. Lee is able to monitor their every move, inexorably raising the stakes for their survival, they somehow fail to take the simplest steps to deny him access. Instead, they careen from one crisis to the next, playing directly into his revengeful plan and further contributing to the film’s overall lack of suspense and originality.

Sulkin (Another Me) and Clayton (Teen Beach Movie) play the hapless pranksters with suitable cluelessness, but never generate sufficient sympathy to really involve the audience. Mace and Wajsbrot capably, if rather impersonally, handle the helming duties, treating their cast more functionally than authentically, rather to the detriment of the entire process.

Venue: LA Film Festival (Nightfall)
Production companies: Bigscope Films, Wild Spark
Cast: Gregg Sulkin, Garrett Clayton, Bella Dayne, Parker Sawyers, Sienna Guillory, Jack Brett Anderson
Directors: Alexis Wajsbrot, Damien Mace
Screenwriter: Joe Johnson
Producers: Romain Philippe, Jason Newmark, Laurie Cook, Farah Abushwesha, Alexis Wajsbrot, Damien Mace
Executive producers: Romain Philippe, Olivier Philippe, Ed Fraiman, Adam Nagel, Joe Johnson, Stephanie Johnson, Brooklyn Weaver
Director of photography: Nathaniel Hill
Production designer: Greg Shaw
Editors: Carmela Iandoli, Tim Murrell
Music: Aleksi Aubry-Carlson,
Casting director: Colin Jones

Not rated, 83 minutes