Review: Panic Button (18) / Directed by: Chris Crow / Screenplay by: Frazer Lee, John Shackleton, David Shillitoe, Chris Crow / Starring: Scarlett Alice Johnston, Jack Gordon, Michael Jibson, Ellen Rhys, Joshua Chambers
Our (ie your) dubious modern obsessions with social networking and reality TV collide with surprisingly-successful results in ‘Panic Button’, a diverting and original new low budget British horror thriller (filmed in sunny Cardiff, fright fans!) which, with its predominantly one-room setting and tiny cast, creates a stiflingly claustrophobic sense of mounting dread and unease which it only manages to lose when the plot contrivances become a little bit too unlikely and the story resolution a little bit too absurd.
Four brash young people - mouthy Dave (Jibson), jack-the-lad Max (Gordon), Welsh hippy chick Gwen (Rhys) and single mum Jo (Johnson) - win an online competition on social network site Fac…sorry, All2gethr.com and find themselves boarding a luxury private jet heading out on an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime to New York. The disembodied voice of their host (appearing on onboard TV screens as an animated alligator) tells them they’ll be passing their time during the flight playing online prize-winning games. But almost immediately the games become uncomfortable when a series of personal questions reveal some truths about the foursome they might have preferred to keep secret. The group quickly decide they don’t want to play any more but the ‘Alligator’ coolly informs them that refusing to co-operate will lead to unfortunate forfeits amongst their online community of friends. Desperation sets in as, 30,000 feet in the air and with no means of escape and no method of reaching the pilot, the group are called into the movie’s own version of ‘Big Brother’s diary room (it’s the plane’s toilet) and given tasks which they must perform if they don’t want to see their family and friends - all shown on the plane’s TV screens as being imprisoned and tortured by off-screen thugs - killed in cold blood.
‘Panic Button’ presses all the right buttons from the off as Jo sets out on her weekend jaunt, leaving her daughter Sophie in the care of her mother. No sooner has Jo driven off in a taxi than her mother is brutally attacked in her own home… Before long we’re at the airport and Jo meets up with her fellow prize-winners, a motley bunch at once slightly-irritating (Dave) and engaging and quite likeable (Gwen and Max). But once we’re aboard the plane itself and the group, captivated by their luxurious (if cramped) environment, settles down for some in-flight entertainment, the mood quickly becomes edgy and unsettling. Not only do our heroes have no idea what’s happening and why they’re being subjected to this subtle, slow-burn torture, neither do we; we’re with them on that plane as ‘Alligator’ holds all the cards and gives out all the orders and it’s not long (in fact, it’s probably really too soon but hey, the movie’s only got ninety minutes to play with) before the foursome are turning on one another as the true nature of their predicament slowly sinks in.
The first hour of ‘Panic Button’ is gripping, fascinating stuff, an intriguing depiction of the human condition collapsing under extreme circumstances. But the film’s downfall is in its need to explain exactly what’s going on and why and, in its haste to wag a disapproving finger at social networking culture, it throws logic and much of its believability out of the porthole and teeters perilously close to becoming a routine mad psycho slasher. Without giving away too much - because ’Panic Button’ is worth a look despite its failings - it does seem a bit of a stretch that Alligator would have singled out these four souls for his special treatment out of the millions out there in cyberspace who have given him reasonable cause to be a bit cheesed off, even if he’s gone to a bit of an elaborate extreme to exact his revenge. The whole subplot about “Max” and his real identity doesn’t really add much to the drama and the motivations and moods of the characters do tend to drift a bit to keep up with the need to hurry the story along.
But ‘Panic Button’, flaws and all, is a commendable effort, a cut above many of the cheap’n’cheerless straight-to-DVD titles we work so hard to warn you about here at Starburst. Well-written, well-acted by its unknown cast and directed with a real flair for tension and heightened drama by Chris Crow in what must have been the most frustratingly-confined circumstances, it’s a brisk and intelligent little psychological horror story and it might even cause a few of us (ie you) to think twice about posting every little trivial detail about our (ie your) lives out onto t’internet for the dubious delectationt of millions upon millions of people we’ve never ever met and will never ever know. Just a thought…
Special features: Decent 22 minute ‘making of’, out-takes (he swore, ha ha), deleted scenes, trailers.
'Panic Button' is out now on DVD in the UK