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SXSW 2015: Hangman Chokes

By  · Published on March 21st, 2015

Energize Students

POV horror is nothing new. Found footage films put viewers in the middle of the action from the point of view of one or more characters, usually from the perspective of a soon-to-be victim, and slasher films have featured sequences from the killer’s POV for decades now. But what if that found footage belonged to the killer himself? And what if he never lost it? And what if it was pointless, predictable and far from frightening?

Hangman opens with a black screen and the sound of a panicked voice calling 911. A video image soon appears as someone documents their walk through a darkened house – a baby is crying, a man is hanging lifeless from the ceiling and a woman sits whimpering on the floor. The camera’s lens soaks in her pain and terror before a hand with a knife repeatedly thrusts into her stomach.

The video then switches to the interior of a parking garage where the Miller family – dad Aaron (Jeremy Sisto), mom Beth (Kate Ashfield), daughter Marley (Ryan Simpkins) and son Max (Ty Simpkins) – is witnessed exiting their car, luggage at hand, and heading into the airport for a two week vacation. The camera operator breaks into their car and uses the GPS system to find the Miller’s home where he proceeds to trash the place and install a dozen hidden cameras. He also builds himself an A/V studio in their attic from where he orchestrates a steadily escalating series of assaults on the privacy, security and vitality.

Director/co-writer Adam Mason’s film is the opposite of terrifying – it’s clear from the very beginning how things are going to turn out for the family, and the editing/script are such that scenes that could have been scary are neutered of their power. The format dictates that our leads are safe until the final minutes, so early scenes of the killer hiding mere feet away or standing over the couple’s bed as they sleep are devoid of tension or suspense – we know nothing’s going to happen yet meaning they’re safe and we’re bored.

That’s not to say these sequences aren’t occasionally creepy – seeing the killer drool and spit into their orange juice only to see the family drink it the next morning is fairly upsetting, and watching the man jerk off and whimper as Aaron and Beth make love in the room beneath him is even more discomfiting – but the lack of scares or suspense hurts the film far too much.

This isn’t a unique problem as it affects many films in the found footage format, but it’s especially egregious here because of whose “eyes” we’re looking through. Usually we’re stuck hanging out with the regular folks, and while they’re frequently annoying they sometimes manage to entertain or grow on us. Here though we’re trapped spending the entire film with a bland madman. The 2012 Maniac reboot with Elijah Wood handled this dilemma far better by giving the lead character both narrative and depth, and even John McNaughton’s 1986 chiller Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – not found footage, but still immerses viewers fully into the psychopath’s perspective – uses emotional turns to enhance the power of what we witness.

We never really get to know the family here and therefore don’t care about them, and that’s never a good thing for characters destined for darkness. We should give a damn, but we don’t – part of it is the mundane nature of their interactions, part of it is the frustrating ease with which the killer manipulates them against each other and part of it is that the film wants us to enjoy the voyeuristic nature of it all knowing that these people are marked for extinction.

Sisto does good work delivering a natural, easy-going performance, and while the others are a mixed bag all of them perform at or above the norm for low-budget genre thrillers like this. Eric Michael Cole’s turn as the killer is tough to gauge as he’s behind a mask whenever he’s onscreen, but attempts to build his “character” aren’t doing anyone any favors. He hits himself and whines periodically to let us know he’s insane and hurting, but he’s also clever enough to orchestrate the appearance of infidelity to cause a rift between Aaron and Beth.

Hangman is technically solid, and even if it’s hard to believe some of the camera placements and lack of discovery their images look fine onscreen. But proficiency isn’t a reason to watch, especially when the entire point is to watch – watch a normal family go about their days, watch them put in mortal danger, rinse, repeat.

The Upside: Jeremy Sisto got a paycheck

The Downside: Predictable; pessimistic; devoid of characters to care about

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.