You present an interesting dilemma that has me somewhat perplexed and highly disturbed. This disturbance is due in no small part to the extremity of your content, which I will address in a short while, but it is such that I find it difficult to either praise or condemn you. Cinema is, like any other artistic medium, meant to enlighten as much as entertain, often depending on the intention of the creator(s). A film like Crank or Shoot ‘em Up is clearly meant to be taken as nothing more than campy, even schlocky action with little regard for the qualities of artistic merit – in essence, they are pure entertainment. On the other hand, something like Schindler’s List is meant to present high drama and excellence in filmmaking that is enjoyable yet emboldening. The same can be said of horror films, with some simply embarking on dark and violent flights of fancy whose only purpose is to amp up the gore factor, usually with a fair bit of humor to make the film as scary as it is funny, while others present the grim, often brutal and grotesque aspects of human life in lurid detail. Sometimes the effect is frightening but titillating while at other times it can actually present a startling look at the fears – innermost and outermost – that haunt the world in which we live.
With all of that in mind, it is difficult to make a fair assessment of you, Megan is Missing, for you accomplish what many films of your ilk strive for but rarely attain: the fake out. Of course, it is one so poignant and powerful that it is easy to understand how many would find you repulsive as a work of film rather than because of your subject or the depths to which you portray it. You’re often labeled as a drama, and you do indeed begin as one, somewhat akin to the standard teen dramas of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Your title character, Megan, is the quintessentially hot queen of the neighborhood and presented as the most popular girl in town who inexplicably (at least, to the other characters in the film) is best friends with Amy, a girl her polar opposite: squeamish, mousy, and socially awkward. Within the first half hour of your narrative, we see the two girls attending a party so wrought with the essentials of decadence unbefitting a teenager that you begin to take on the feel of a rip-off of Kids, abound with underage drinking and Megan performing fellatio on the party host as Amy hurls atop two girls kissing. Following scenes in which Megan reveals details of her sordid past involving being molested by various adults including her father only serve to lead the viewer to predict what may follow, with more than a few scenarios for where the story may go becoming very likely. Will a deep rift form between the two friends as a result of Megan’s wild ways overcoming the goodness hinted at in her heart? Will either one of the girls be further drawn into the debauchery to suffer tragic consequences? It could go either way at this point… until the introduction of a character we come to know only as Josh.
As stated, you offer a profound fake out, and it is with the entrance of Josh that you take on the sinister tone that pervades until your hideous final act. Heard but unseen, the audience is shown one of the greatest threats of the digital age: the internet predator. From here, all traces of humor are effectively wiped away to enable room for the nail-biting suspense that follows as we watch Megan’s naivety become her undoing, falling prey to the seductive lures of Josh. Suddenly, your title’s meaning becomes clear as Megan goes missing. Naturally, as is often the case in real life, she is first suspected to be a runaway, her disappearance dismissed by all as a mere prank… except by Amy. And then you hit us hard with a gruesome pair of photographs hinting at Megan’s fate – and what we soon suspect will befall Amy as Josh’s threats toward her become more palpable – turning you finally into a grisly horror film. As stated, your final act is hideous and ultimately saddening as we witness poor Amy being subjected to the veritable tortures of the damned. Characters suffering humiliation and degradation in film are nothing new, but to see (thankfully brief, but no less insidious) images of a 14-year-old girl stripped, chained, raped, and beaten can surely not be seen by anyone outside of a depraved mind as entertainment. No, what we see now is repugnant, despicable, and above all honest. This is what we don’t see on the news or in documentaries full of interviews and police reports. This is the ghastliness of human sickness and evil that we only hear about and see only the slightest glimpses of in films like Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. This is the true nature of horror that exists in the world made bare as we endure 10 whole minutes of listening to Amy’s pleas for mercy under the sight and sound of Josh digging a lonely grave.
And it is here where the dilemma comes in. With your entertainment factor all but scraped away, what remains is a film so genuinely frightening that I shed tears now just thinking about you as I write this. Films like The Exorcist and The Shining stay entertainingly scary to me thanks to the familiarity of the characters in the midst of unfamiliar circumstances as a degree of empathy is felt for the family in crisis in both films, given a measure of unsettling enjoyment by the supernatural elements of demonic or ghostly possession. You, Megan is Missing, present this empathy in a manner akin to an axe penetrating the cranium; major attention should be given to Amber Perkins for her portrayal of Amy, capturing not only the perky awkwardness of a social outcast in your beginning, but for also presenting one of the most authentic depictions of hopeless despair and soul-gripping fear in your last act I’ve ever seen. Without her, it would be easy to dismiss the cast as little more than an assembly of nobodies whose performances offer lowly caricatures of teenage shallowness and immaturity who ultimately deserve none of the audience’s sympathies. Also, I must admit to chuckling at the hopeless attempts of Lauren Leah Mitchell to hide a distinctly southern drawl in her performance as a newscaster. Perhaps the subpar acting was a shortcoming of your low budget, or perhaps it was an attempt on the director’s part to emphasize this disconnect of real human emotions and interaction that seems so prevalent in this day and age and is indeed part of your narrative subtext.
As well, credit must go to your writer/director Michael Goi not only for the transitional development of the story from teen drama to real life horror, but also for the intricacies of the filmmaking. While the found footage style has steadily become something of a cliché in the genre thanks to The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, it serves as an exclamation point on your wider implications on the dangers of technology in the modern era. As filmed from phones, webcams, and camcorders, and showing characters communicating via the internet, there is a subtle disparity between the intimacies these video and social media offer and the severe lack of them when abused and utilized for selfish and even malevolent purposes. A key punctuation mark to this comes when Amy pleads to her captor, calling him by name, only to have him respond derisively, “My name’s not Josh.” Also, Goi employs some legitimate flashes of stylistic intrigue that had me jump in my seat more than once, from the shadowy silhouette subtly overlooking Amy in one scene to the flash of the kidnapper’s hand across the screen before cutting to black. With no pervasive music score to amplify moments of shock, the viewer is left with the sudden unpreparedness of reality.
Some dismiss you as a vile film whose depictions of absolute human cruelty devoid of hope or redemption render you unsuitable for public viewing. Others lament the bad acting and the long shots as simply boring, downright bad filmmaking. Both viewpoints seem to acknowledge that you have some message to convey, but don’t seem to feel you do so effectively because they can’t enjoy you as a film, and therein lies your dilemma.
Horror films do often appeal to us on a visceral level, skirting the lines between fear and intrigue, yet so few leave such a lasting impression as to follow us in our daily lives and give us something to be afraid of long after the end credits have rolled. You do this by way of unapologetic realism. What many would deem as bad acting is not far removed from the overwrought and melodramatic behaviors exuded by many young people fed on a steady diet of reality TV and comfortable superficiality. What some might see as cruel and hopeless is the unbearably frequent truth that there isn’t always a happy ending. Many horror films commit the mortal sin of showing us the monster, thus making it no longer frightening. Your director fakes us out in this regard too, teasing at the possibility that we will get to see Josh’s face for some satisfyingly dramatic reveal, only to wallow in the uncertainty of his true identity as the few distorted glimpses we get only accentuate the truly terrifying realization that the real monsters are right in front of us every day of our lives.
How I shudder to think of you even now,