- Straight to Video
- Director: Rafal Zielinski
- Written by: Kathy Mackel, Stan Foster, Frank Peretti
- Running Time: 106 minutes
- Language: English
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
- Cast: David Keith, Mel Harris, Leighton Meester, Douglas Smith, Jake Richardson, Bobby Brewer, Daniel Farber, Edwin Hodge, Andrea Morris, William R. Moses, Margaret Travolta, Tom Wright, Frank Peretti, Liz Schilling, Teresa Suter, Kristin Cowan, Kristopher Higgins, Alexander Deeney, Ryan Flanery, Suzanne Niles, Bethany Webley, Steven J. Barry, Ben Downey, Linda Schrecker, Darylin Goodman, Paul Lucas, Cecil Ellsworth
As if acting as a barometer for how far his work has evolved, it’s kind of startling to realize that the same fellow who shot raunchy Corman-produced sex comedies in the early 80s would be the same man helming a “message movie” based on the writings of a Christian science fiction novelist. “Hangman’s Curse” is the first book in author Frank E. Peretti’s short lived Veritas Project series for teenagers and Rafal Zielinski’s attempt to transfer it into a film only magnifies its strangely manipulative tone and hokey plot-filled story. I’m not sure if it works as a book but as a film… people are going to feel as though they are having their chains pulled. Personally, I was struck by how much it felt like a pilot episode for a proposed television series, a series geared specifically for young people. If one enters the “Hangman’s Curse” going strictly by the creepy suggestive box cover art, without any knowledge of the production history, disappointment is sure to greet you at about the thirty minute mark because it is about that moment when you realize that “Hangman’s Curse” is not a horror film in the conventional sense but rather it’s a ‘family-friendly’ thriller designed to appeal to the Disney channel ‘Goosebumps’ crowd.
"Flipping the script,” is how one of the students describes of the current situation at Rogers High School. It seems that the more popular students at the school are being systemically picked off; victims of terrifying hallucinations that have left them in a hospital in a comatose state. In each case, the victims scream out a single name "Abel Frye!" before succumbing to the nightmares. Who is Abel Frye you ask? Victimized by bullies and heartbroken by a girl, Frye had many years earlier decided to hang himself somewhere deep in the bowels of the school. Now, years later, it seems the spirit of this bullied kid is haunting the hallways of Rogers High School exacting his otherworldly revenge, egged on by those students who are now enduring what he endured during his years as a student. Yes, this is the Columbine massacre with a supernatural slant.
Enter the Springfields; mom, pop, two kids and a dog, on the surface the all-American family but beneath, they are undercover government operatives, working as part of a clandestine Veritas Project – an arm of the F.B.I. designed specifically to investigate paranormal or out of the ordinary cases (think X-Files). Losing its credibility almost from the outset, when the film opens, the Springfield teens Elisha (Leighton Meester) and Elijah (Douglas Smith) are deeply involved in a drug case, working undercover in a local highschool (think 21 Jumpstreet). Their parents, Nate (David Keith) and Sarah (Mel Harris), with guns drawn, enter the fray and through scare tactics, manage to wrangle a name out of the frightened drug runner. Personally, I found myself questioning why two parents would knowingly place their children in harm’s way by having them so deeply involved in a drug case. This is where I got a genuine sense of what kind of film I was in for; one where underage kids would be used by government agencies to pursue anomalous baddies (think Spy Kids).
Shifting gears, the film moves into the hallways of Rogers High School as Elijah and Elisha adopt various personas, the nerd and the popular girl, in order to acclimatize to the current school environment, and maybe garner some clues as to why the popular kids are dropping like flies. All the usual clichés manifest themselves, as the each clique is played up, including the jocks that walk with their chest puffed out pushing nerdy kids out of the way and asking for their lunch money. Oh yeah, their lunch money. We also have the tormented nerdy kids, who laugh while they themselves are being brutalized, a fake show of bravado in the face of such ugliness. In what can only be called a happy fluke, this aspect of the film felt totally genuine, and was, in all honesty, the most bothersome aspect of the film. There are also the goth kids – so completely alienated and emotionally introverted, they are exhausted from all the bullying and they, as it turns out, represent the driving force behind the recent bizarre events at the school. As Elijah and Elisha befriend the students they think most involved, they suddenly find themselves the target of their wrath or at least Elisha does. Sneaking around the interior of the school after hours, the pair also uncovers clues that might point to a more earthly explanation for all the supposed supernatural weirdness. Nate Springfield (David Keith), their dad, who has entered the school as the janitor, also uncovers some startling things of his own, namely how certain school officials are willing to turn a blind eye to the bullying.
As the film slinks into it’s final act, and all the explanations are given and the killer is revealed, something of which I have to admit, surprised me, the material quickly spins away from the main story and becomes something of an unconnected and improbable animals-versus-man piece, one that drags on for far too long but is nonetheless thrilling due to its adherence to not relying on CGI. Trust me, the last fifteen minutes of this film is truly squirm worthy material, especially for those with a phobia of a certain eight legged creatures. How the actors here so willingly mingle with hundreds of these creatures is beyond me. Ick! Interesting, the all too happy climax, coming after this bit of creepiness, feels somewhat like a cheat; however, it’s hardly a surprise considering the tone of the film.
The family friendly kiddie nature of the film is its biggest drawback, in that it is never allowed to delve into the darker aspects of the story, namely bullying and students plotting the death of other students. It’s hard to buy into a film when you know that it’s not being honest to itself. Also, we are supposed to look beyond the gaping Grand Canyon-sized plot holes, which come so frequently one would have trouble keeping up with them. The character interactions and some of the situations are so manufactured that one will be laughing at their sheer absurdity. After awhile it’s a matter of connecting the dots, each of which drive an aspect of the plot, and none of which are the least bit believable. At one point I asked myself, “Why did she lend that girl her shirt? That was so out of character.” Then I realized that it was because it was setting up the ending sequence, all of which couldn’t have come without that contrivance. This is “Hangman’s Curse” in a nutshell. Actions are triggered by the needs of the plot because the plot is not strong enough to drive itself without these absurd manipulations.
Playing a brother and sister team, Leighton Meester (2007's "The Haunting of Sorority Row") and Douglas Smith (2002's "Trancers 6") work well together and their comfort level with each other infuses their scenes with a certain amount of playfulness. Meester is clearly the more talented of the two but only by a hair. Meester's ‘death’ scene is far and away the best moment in the film as it allows both Smith and Meester to delve into some more emotional territory. Douglas Smith who looks a bit like Canadian actor Nathan Carter of Radio Free Roscoe fame, is able to project tough and vulnerable in his nebbish character. I thought that was at least interesting. David Keith (2007's "Succubus: Hell Bent") and Mel Harris (1999's "Sonic Impact"), as the parents, are both veterans of the big and small screen and each approach their roles with a kind of laze-fare by the numbers attitude. “Hangman’s Curse” writer Frank Peretti (2006's "The Visitation") appears in a smaller but crucial role as Dr. Algernon Wheeling and is so completely over the top horrible, he is barely tolerable. This man is not an actor and should never have been allowed to appear in this film, not even as an extra.
Sadly, the one aspect of the film that drew me in, the idea of victimised kids using supernatural forces to counter those who seek to bully them, is an interesting idea but it’s a waste that more couldn’t have been done with that. It speaks to a project that should have been better thought out before being given a green light. However, on a high note, the film’s final fifteen minutes are definitely worthy of your time. Considering how many filmmakers utilize digital effects in favour of the real thing, it’s a real treat to see one that actually goes for broke by using real animals. Without giving away a shocking plot development, check out “The Spider Wrangler: The Spiders of Hangman's Curse” a documentary that details just how ballsy the cast and crew were in the production of the film. Too bad that ballsiness couldn’t have been transferred into the story. Instead we’re left with a film that feels castrated.