Remember Internet chat rooms?
Before the days of social networking sites, it was sort of normal for people to go on to these and speak to complete and utter strangers from all around the world. Being a teenager in the late 90s, there’s a strong likelihood that I unknowingly wittered away many an hour happily talking to a dodgy greasy haired guy wearing a green mac and touching himself, whilst he pretended to be a stunning girl from South America. Offering anonymity in a way that the likes of Facebook don’t (the only way to remain entirely secret now is to have no visible online friends) there must have been many parents sighing with relief when their children went on to slightly more, though certainly not entirely, secure means of internet communications. Coming out in 2011, Megan is Missing is maybe slightly dated in much the same way that the next Ring film inevitably will be – VHS? Who keeps those? – But then regardless of the technology being employed, in these films, it’s the horror that matters. And fortunately, Megan is Missing has a fair bit of that. Boasting a grim final act, the first half hour will likely drive your patience, but the dark crescendo that it builds up to is effective and worth the wait.
Based on several different real-life cases of internet-paedo abductions, Megan is Missing is a found-footage horror that tells the story of two teenage girls (Megan and Amy) who get caught up in an online friendship with “Josh”; supposedly a skater boy from the same town. Of course, knowing that the film being watched is a horror, the audience is kept at least half an hour ahead of the narrative as we watch these misunderstood kids getting increasingly invested in their relationship with their new friend, who of course isn’t much like his online profile would suggest. This notion of a false identity is also present in the life of Megan; the typical indie movie teenager, whose promiscuity and drug abuse act as a means to compensate for her poor relationship with her mother, her history of sexual abuse and her angsty insecurities about life. Just the kind of vulnerable girl that Josh knows how to lure in.
And lures her in he does. Without offering any overly specific spoilers, the last section of this film is dark, violent and features images that are downright disturbing. But while director Michael Goi undoubtfully knows how to deliver the unpleasantries, he is also rather adept at knowing when to show nothing at all. There’s a creepy as hell photograph, some rape and a bit of torture. But none of these elements are as horrifying as a continuous shot that rounds of the piece. Regardless of how little you warmed to these girls earlier the fates that await them are definitely not for the eyes of sensitive audiences. And like the most effective horrors, it never feels gratuitous. Given the subject matter, the film almost has to embrace a certain level of violence or the makers could easily stand accused of not taking the topic seriously enough. Sure, some people will give the usual objection of ‘it would have been more effective if they never told us what happened to the girls’, but if that’s what you’d rather see, then there’s plenty of that on the news. What keeps the film powerful is that it’s not afraid to tell us what happens. And with some tasteful moderation, it also keeps the violence ugly, never once making you reach for the popcorn. If nothing else, this film will make you feel for its characters.
Which is quite an accomplishment considering how utterly excruciating it starts off. The dynamic between the 14-15-year-olds Megan and Amy is a cliché riddled odd couple one, with both characters existing on the typical teen film dichotomy wherein characters are either a boring prude or a shameless “slut”. * Yawn * And the boring prude wants to be the slut but then sees she’s hurting inside. * Yawn some more * Cue a party scene where guests – all of them bad actors, though let’s not be too picky – score hard drugs, talk about/ give blow jobs and flirt away while drinking like fish. This is very much the Skins view on teenage life, and the exaggerated depictions of debauchery, unfortunately, obscures the human story beneath it all; of teenage girls going through confusing points in their lives and really needing some understanding and people to relate to. Now I’m not suggesting teenagers in horror films should all be Laurie Strode. Just like I’m not naive enough to infer that some teenage girls don’t engage in regular pseudocopulation (aka, vaginal intercourse) and get high on drugs. But. I am suggesting that this all too edgy Larry Clark esque school of writing teenagers is to the detriment of the piece. It’s artificial. It’s alienating. And it cheapens the abduction’s blow. This is especially true considering that the film will doubtlessly appeal to parents, or even potentially offer a good vehicle for parents and kids to talk about online behaviours together. And it’s a shame that considering after all the pish both girls have some nicely written character parts that it’s kind of hard to care about. What could have been a thought-provoking tale of modern life instead is instead too much attitude and style over substance. In saying that though, after wading through all the muck sexualised underage girls talk for what feels like half the film, it’s a massive credit to Goi that he manages to make their story engaging again.
Outside this notable aspect, the film’s realism has the usual found footage faux-pas, with events being filmed that usually wouldn’t be. This time the characters largely speak via video calls, even when it’s been firmly established in the script that they don’t like each other. But then this problem is fairly standard across a number of horror films ranging from Rec to even my beloved Big Finish. What isn’t standard is the entirely out of place attempt to do satire when we get offered a dramatic reconstruction of the abduction that takes aim to lampoon the news, but derails the tension that they’ve got surrounding the abduction. It’s an incidence of the film trying to do too much, and as with the cringy dialogue, the thin characterisation, the bad acting and contrived narrative devices, it is another dart being shot at into the side of the elephant that is Megan is Missing. Fortunately, the elephant stays standing, though it is left with a severe limp.