Watch Me (2006) – By David Stephenson

 I’ve never been so jetset and interesting. Never before have I been so international in my reviews. One minute I’m reviewing the Hungarian brain-twister Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, the next I’m receiving the latest in Australian cinema – a clever horror piece going under the title ‘Watch Me.’ Not bad for a reviewer who until recently was nailed to the shores of this rainy little country called the UK. I guess all I need now is some cutting-edge Asian Cinema and I’ll be smiling for weeks.

Watch Me, directed by Melanie Ansley is a claustrophobic chiller based around the terrifying underworld of the snuff porno industry – the kind which infamously involves the subject being killed during the sordid and often violent proceedings. The film centres around a young woman called Tess – a film student no less – who’s thesis involves investigating the power of the voyeur over its subject. During her research she picks up some rather… colourful, rather… unusual DVDs, one of which has deadly consequences for the unfortunates who watch it.

Not that these supposed victims have much choice – as soon as the DVD is played on a computer, its contents are emailed to the friends and family of the victim, making the consequences of watching it perhaps a little unfair. But as they say, Death knows no justice, and no sooner are our latest lambs to the slaughter plugged in and turned on (no pun intended) than found dead, lying in a pool of blood, their eyes brutally sewn together.

This is perhaps the best asset of this film – the imaginative ways in which gore and butchery is used to provoke fear. Rather than your usual bullshit splatter-fest, this piece adopts the thinking man’s approach and goes for morbid visuals such as bloody tears on the victim’s faces – almost as if weeping for the sins committed. Hauntingly, all that’s left in the wake of this destruction is a few strands of bright red hair…

Will Tess Hooper and her new buddy the rather unusual and morbidly obsessed Taku (known also as Freak Boy – a name which had me in stitches (again, no pun intended)), go on the hunt for the mysterious killer and the mystery behind the deaths. This search is not without its dangers, however, as Tess’s friend is brutally murdered and our heroine finds herself next in line for the chop.

Watch Me is a highly exciting and at times gripping thriller, expertly shot to provide a sense of claustrophobia throughout. The pacing is deliberately slowed to allow an air of suspicion and dread about the piece, almost as if something could jump out at any second. The music used, while at times repetitive, is haunting and suspenseful, and occasionally frightening in its delivery. (Think of the music used in the early John Carpenter films and you’re pretty close.)

The acting is also of a reassuringly high standard, especially our two heroic figures. I especially liked the performance of Sam Voutas who’s performance as the creepy, ghoul-like Taku / Freak Boy is one of the film’s highlights. The chemistry between the pair is also noteworthy as a cat-and-mouse style relationship of fear and persuasion crashes its way onto the screen, grabbing your attention and refusing to let go.

The performance of Tanya McHenry as ‘The Redhead’ – the mysterious killer on the rampage, is also extremely well done and haunting. Given the silent nature of the role, however, and the way in which the character was shot, so as to reveal as little as possible, leaves it difficult to determine whether this memorable performance was because of the talent of the actress or the creepy way in which she was captured onto the cellulite.

While there are numerous positive aspects, there are some faults. Not all of the performances are as strong as those of our main leads; some of the lesser characters lack any real poise, direction or the jolt needed to bring them to life. Many of the supporting cast struck me as being mere vehicles to bring the film forward, mere triggers to initiate the film’s plot and objectives. And yes, there’s a few in this film who’s sole reason for popping up on screen is to be sadistically murdered soon after. While the deaths may be the film’s most captivating point, the flatness of the slain can be detracting, to the point of lessening the impact of the violent acts that follow.

The main problem of the film, however, is its screaming similarities to The Ring and its American re-make, both of which were massively successful at the box office, spawning a few hundred thousand sequels each. The blatant similarities between the plot of this and The Ring (intentional or otherwise) can do nothing but detract from the film, making it seem to some as a low-budget Australian re-make rather than the exciting bit of cinema it really is. These similarities are by no means coincidental: murderous ghost trapped on film, those who watch it die, the ghost is that of a slain female, who walks around in a similar manner to that which we saw in The Ring. Many of the haunting scenes are even shot in a similar way.

Drawbacks aside, this is a gripping piece of cinema which shows real promise and direction, and can do nothing but springboard the two excellent central characters into a limelight they honestly deserve. Keep an eye out for Frances Marrington (who plays Tess Hooper) and Sam Voutas in future – if given the right push, a bright future lies ahead for them both.

You heard it here first, folks.