Movie Review: The Devil pays housecalls online in “E-Demon”

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All the upgrades, tech advances and iPhones since “Fear.com” (2002) came out, all the variations of “Friend Request” and “Unfriended: Dark Web” in computer-streaming/cell camera/web camera murder and the formula hasn’t changed. Not much, anyway.

It’s still a lot of first-person (holding a phone camera) point-of-view, limited settings, narrow field-of-vision, a handful of people talking into a laptop or phone camera, multiple windows folded into a Skype screen and lot of screen-freezes, image-ghosting, blackouts and buffering.

In “E-Demon” friends gather for an informal online college reunion. They’re 30, each at different places in his or her life — married with kids, or broke and moved back in with the parents, richer than rich or struggling to get that first book published.

But the one thing New York author Kendra (Julia Kelly), doting Dayton dad Dwayne (John Anthony Wylliams), Seattle high-roller A.J. (Christopher Daftsios) and struggling mental health counselor Mar (Ryan Redebaugh) have held onto is “Freak Out.” That’s their name for elaborate scary pranks they play on each other.

And in the Internet age, separated by a wide continent, the gags have moved online.

But Mar stages one that most would admit, “goes too far.” He’s shown the others (walking the camera down the hall) his dotty grandmother and the younger brother who does a lot of her caregiving (Vincent Cooper).

“Gamma, tell me the story of the cursed trunk!”

So she does. Her story takes them back in family history, to a relative executed during the Salem Witch Trials, with “The cursed trunk is being kept in our attic! The end of days will come!”

Mar then goes to the attic, trots out a little Latin incantation over a mirror and a voodoo doll he finds in said trunk, and OW. OUCH. Hah! Gotcha! Scary, right?

Wait, did I mention that Mar and his family of shrinks lives in Salem, Massachusetts? Never mind. Probably not important.

Next thing you know, whatever went “KLUNK” on Mar leaves his camera (Must be attached to his head.) upside down, dragged into another room.

Mar’s sister lets a glimpse of a pentagram carved on her belly show. A.J. is acting out a simulated ritual sex act with his girlfriend. Kendra freaks out and Dwayne, drawn away to tell bedtime stories to his kids, misses the escalating weirdness happening to four people logged in to Skype.

Something wicked is downloading into their digital lives.

Writer-director Jeremy Wechter parks this picture in real-time. We’re watching a recording of events that transpired in four cities involving scores of victims on that night, a voice-distorted spokesperson for the “E Demon Resistance Network” tells us.

“We need your help!”

That lame framing device aside, “E-Demon” sticks to formula. Bad things happen, characters grow paranoid about each other even as they’re trying to reason out what’s going on, innocent bystanders — relatives, boyfriends, paramedics and cops responding to 9-11 calls made cross country — are sucked in, possessed.

“Remember my theory…cameras speed up the process.”

Oh, and then the magical “explainer” shows up to talk us and them through demonology, maybe suggest solutions. Yes, Jeremy Wechter discovered “Magical Negro” all by himself.

The violence has a certain voyeuristic immediacy — helpless people watching their screens as this character is about to be attacked — “BEHIND you!” — or that one fights off demonically possessed people within the field of view of a laptop camera.

There’s blood on the lens in one scene, a person (their camera) dragged and held under water in a tub, clever effects. Movies like this are exercises in meticulous staging. It’s like the theater equivalent of a “door slamming farce,” characters enter and exit in varying degrees of logic, not knowing what the rest of the Skypers have seen or experienced while they were gone.

It’s kind of clumsy and obvious, but it moves things along.

Wechter keeps having attackers drag their victims out of the frame, because there’s only so much room on a screen filled with other screens, side-chats and Internet research
Windows on how to fight a demon, etc. And you can’t have the hero/heroine tripping over bodies as the next attack begins.

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I’ll give the film this much — it holds your interest.

That’s despite the constant reliance on formula, the generally inane dialogue, some head-scratching logic you have to avoid if you want to buy into “This is somebody’s live camera capturing that view” conceit.

The performances occasionally hit “indifferent,” in between a few genuinely fraught moments. This far removed from actual terror — a screen within a screen showing events far, far away — it’s hard to get much acting in. Kelly and Wylliams have their chances.

But the people experiencing the violence in person don’t get close-ups. The camera is sitting on the computer desk far in the foreground of the brawl going on in the background.

Close-ups make scares. Ask John Carpenter. So no, “E-Demon” isn’t particularly frightening. And that problem was fixable, Drag the fights into the camera, and not just dropped cell cameras, which hold no closeup.

“E-Demon” would make a good movie to pick apart in film school, simulating the work-shopping process Wechter & Co. could have used to add close-ups, make the traveling cameras more logical, declutter the screen a bit and find a fright or two in this now well-worn wickedness on the world wide web formula.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sexual content, profanity

Cast: Julia KellyJohn Anthony WylliamsChristopher Daftsios

Credits: Written and directed by Jeremy Wechter. A Dark Cuts release.

Running time: 1:26

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