Will (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name, On the Basis of Sex) is an apathetic bartender who finds a phone left by four college kids. He ends up bringing it home and becoming obsessed with it. His girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria 2018, Bad Times at the El Royale) pleads with him to turn it in to the police, as it contains gruesome pictures of murders as well as texts pleading for help. After Will calls the person texting, he’s informed that he’s been “chosen.” During a series of bizarre events, Will gradually loses his hold on reality.
The film opens with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: “It had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know […] It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core…” One of the first shots is of a long, dark tunnel. The film’s image systems are comprised mainly of emptiness–and emptiness being filled with horrible things. The background story is that the four kids from the bar opened a portal to another world by messing with old books and awakening a “thing from the tunnel”. We find this out slowly, as the pacing regarding what’s going on with the phone is a delightfully agonizing slow burn. Even after the obligatory internet search, Will doesn’t come up with much beyond that they’re old Gnostic rites that involve human sacrifice. The filmmakers choose to downplay the supernatural elements to focus on Will’s corruption.
Will is–as Carrie calls him–a mock person. He’s empty inside. He’s pining away for his ex Alicia (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2, Joker), despite her having moved on with Jeffrey (Karl Glusman, Nocturnal Animals, The Neon Demon). He’s blase about most things, caring mainly to maintain his buzz (you could make a drinking game of how often he’s seen taking a drink). He gives underage kids liquor without a second thought. He throws beer bottle caps on the floor, both at work at the bug-infested bar (you can guess how much he adheres to health codes), and at his surprisingly well-appointed home (which is all Carrie, we find out later). He wears ragged clothes and spends most of his screentime looking dirty, sweaty, and needing a shave. At one point, Carrie flat-out tells him he smells. I guess that’s why they went with an actor as ungodly handsome as Armie Hammer.
There are some truly grotesque and creepy visuals. I don’t want to spoil any, so here are some transcriptions from the closed captioning: “scurrying of cockroaches”, “skin squelches”, “distorted screams and yells over phone.” Okay, okay, I have to share one. Will gets out of bed in the dark to find one of the teens from the bar sitting at the kitchen table, with his back to the camera. He spits out a bloody mouthful of teeth and states emotionlessly, “We opened a portal. Something came and possessed us.” Then his head starts pulsating. It’s. Fucking. Brilliant. So scary.
There’s no comic relief. The tension is built carefully and maintained throughout. Three times during the movie I actually covered my mouth in horror–which is not typical behavior for me, it goes without saying. The ending is a climax of perversion, and when it ended, I felt myself physically relaxing. While the credits rolled I felt like I was catching my breath. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something psychological, unpredictable, and totally original.