Movie Review — Playback (2012)
It can be useful to analyze a movie that wasn’t so great not simply from the “worth watching/not worth watching” reviewer’s standpoint, but as a storyteller and film fan who wants to figure out what worked in a movie and where it went wrong. Then we can put those lessons to use in our own work. In the case of Playback, a lot went wrong to turn a potentially compelling story into a muddled mess.
There’s actually a good movie lurking inside Playback. You have a creepy, druggie kid (Quinn) who works at the local TV news station, archiving all their old footage. He becomes infected by some kind of techno-Satan spirit that drives him to kill and also gives him the ability to control other people once he “interfaces” with them through a TV monitor/camera connection. This is combined with a subplot about a pervert local cop, played by Christian Slater, who pays the kid off to hide cameras in locker rooms and girls’ bedrooms and record the footage. Add in a friend (from when they worked at a video store together) who’s investigating a series of murders from the recent past for a class film project, and you’ve got a tight plot with just enough complexity to keep it interesting. If only they’d left it at that.
Given these raw materials, here’s the movie I would have made: Quinn comes across some footage in the archive that’s “infected” with evil because the of the sheer horror of what was filmed: the aftermath of a brutal murder spree. Quinn slowly disintegrates even as the evil gives him the power to control victims through his voyeuristic video set up. He builds a weird little army of thralls to do his bidding, pressuring the cop to find some additional footage of the crime, shot by the killer himself, because that footage will give Quinn even more power. More range, the ability to control more of his video slaves. Meanwhile, Quinn’s friend is looking into the murder and tracing a legend about the “cursed” video tape. He tries to help Quinn, and in the climax, Quinn, his friend, and the cop all cross paths in a final, bloody showdown of twisted and conflicted motivations and manipulations.
Some of those elements are in the actual movie, especially Quinn’s riveting disintegration. He’s played by Toby Hemingway, and he looks enough like Layne Staley that, given the drug parallel, it kind of freaked me out. The problem is, Playback makes a mess of the backstory. There’s a ludicrous legend about a movie-maker who might have actually been Satan, and who concocted an utterly nonsensical plan to steal his own son’s soul and then somehow move his own soul into successive generations of his own descendants, including the brutal killer in the town’s recent past. It is one of the most deeply, deeply stupid attempts at a horror backstory I’ve ever encountered. Then they tried to make the friend randomly part of the Satanic bloodline, I think? It’s bad.
If they’d stripped all that away and told a much simpler and more mysterious story, it would have been a solid, possibly excellent horror movie. Yeah, some of the dialog was a little clunky, but I found myself liking the teen characters, who acted reasonably like real people. Quinn’s pathetic attempts to hang out with normal kids being constantly derailed by his own weirdness and drug use (even before he got possessed) carried some nice emotional weight, too, creating some sympathy for what would otherwise have been a generic edgy villain. And the combination of Quinn’s mind-control abilities with the creepy voyeurism subplot made for some really uncomfortable moments (in the good kind of horror movie uncomfortable).
It drove me nuts watching this movie, because the parts of a good story were there, but they couldn’t figure out how to put them together.