Even from the Netflix description and thumbnails, 2016 sci-fi horror Let’s Be Evil directed by Martin Owen, shows a lot of promise. Mostly aesthetically. Owens, who made his full length film directing debut with the satirical 2015 horror, L.A. Slasher, clearly has his visual style down. No one can argue with the fact that the lighting in his films is gorgeous, and will appeal to this generation of neon fanatics who run 90’s grunge aesthetic blogs on Tumblr. The film zeroes in on our blind trust in technology, having the characters rely on virtual reality glasses to see. When they take them off, everything is pitch black, which sounds like the perfect set up for a sci-fi horror film. As the audience, we also have to put our faith in the virtual reality, as the camera acts as the VR glasses our characters are wearing. Because of this perspective, the film feels more like an indie horror game than a movie, where the uninspired dialogue, stiff acting, and cliche twist ending would feel at home.
In a brief interview at FrightFest, Owen calls the film a “point of view movie” in which the audience can experience the story in the shoes of the characters. Yet often the cameraman seems to forget that’s the goal, as there are plenty of scenes where the characters should be looking directly at the camera, but instead look off to the side, as if in a standard, non-pov film. I want to dismiss this as an easy mistake, but if you’re making a film where the point of view shots are a driving part of the plot and the main thrill of the movie, how can your director of photography forget that for a couple of scenes? How can your actors forget? As someone who’s been on plenty of indie film sets, I can understand forgetting about continuity or fucking up the dialogue once or twice. But how could no one notice until editing that the actors weren’t looking into the camera? This isn’t just an easy mistake anyone would make. It was a big, lazy fuck up, and it says a lot about how much attention and care went into this film.
If budget weren’t a problem, I’m sure Owens would have utilized the virtual reality concept even more, hopefully to dehumanize the “candidates” further, who are children who don’t speak or often make eye contact, instead focusing on their “lessons”, which are shown as colorful techy nonsense projected right before their eyes. This may remind viewers of children these days, absorbed in their iPads and parents’ smartphones. Why not display them to the chaperones as cartoonish avatars, harkening even more to our current social media obsession and vanity? Reveal them to be children later in the film, and send chills down your audience’s spine. There was so much opportunity here to further Owen’s message! It’s disappointing how little he takes advantage of the technology he’s criticizing. If you’re going to use sci-fi horror to critique society, it’s definitely a “go hard or you’re in the wrong genre” kind of situation.
Another thing that bugged the everliving shit out of me was the blatant queerbaiting. Queerbaiting? In this day and age? I know, it’s so socially tone-deaf for an indie horror film it’s depressing. Tiggs, full name Antigone (so many missed opportunities for references to ancient greek tragedies here), has her sexuality poked and prodded from the beginning of the film. Before we even see her, Jenny overhears a conversation between her and Darby, in which Tiggs mentions a “girlfriend” and Darby teases her about that usage, prompting Tiggs to clarify she means “a friend who is a girl”. When Jenny does finally see Tiggs, the two women share a moment. Tiggs has a warm smile that clearly appeals to Jenny, and they’re quick to trust each other. We even see Tiggs immediately use her VR glasses to do some covert research on Jenny, implying she has an interest in her that is almost suspicious if it can’t be interpreted as physical attraction.
I’ve talked a lot of shit about everything but the visuals, but I do have a major problem with them. The dimly lit neon aesthetic doesn’t serve the plot at all! It’s dark when the characters take off their glasses, but it’s also dark when they put them on. This vague government agency could choose to make the characters see anything, but somehow we’re supposed to believe they chose to show them fun neon lights everywhere. How is that scary? Here’s how I would have fixed this film visually to intensify every goddamn scene:
What we have already is an underground facility with no lights at all. The character puts on her VR glasses. Now instead of dimly lit rooms with bright neon colors, the facility is completely lit up. It’s clinically bright. Like a hospital. It makes the characters and the audience uncomfortable. The lights are cold and harsh. There’s no warmth. Why should there be? This is a learning facility produced by the government. Warmth and creativity is not important. What matters is numbers and cold, hard logic. This subconsciously develops the bad guys in the movie and we aren’t left in the dark. (Ha ha.)
Some examples of bright lights used to unsettle the audience:
The contrast of well lit and pitch black contributes to the confusion of how much time has passed, which the characters do bring up in the original film. Now, when the characters wake up and have to put their VR glasses back on to see, they are blinded by the bright light, have to take time to adjust, and are likely to be even more disoriented in emergencies, creating perfect opportunities for horror. We already have Jenny questioning her sanity. Clinical bright lights that are unsettling and give you no clue to what time it is are perfect for making characters feel crazy and isolated. It also would have made the chase scenes so much more intense, with the evil children manipulating the chaperones’ sight, and they can’t trust anything they see. I want the terrifying realization that even though the light feels safe, it’s more dangerous than being completely blind. Let’s get a reference to the iconic scene from Silence of the Lambs when Clarice has her boss fight with Buffalo Bill in night vision goggles.
When you make a film, you can’t just do something because you think it’ll look cool. There has to be a reason for everything. Everything should serve your plot or your audience will get lost in your self indulgent red herrings. Let’s Be Evil had so much potential to be a better film, that that’s really why I feel so heated about it. I’m more disappointed than angry. Let’s hope Martin Owen learns from the mistakes he made in this one and does better with his upcoming film Kung Fu Princess.