Here's something we haven't seen before: An evil force that kills people through televisions. Oh wait, that movie is called The Ring, and it's infinitely better than Playback, which is most notable for the quasi-cameo appearance by Christian Slater as a peeping Tom cop not at all concerned that his town's high school students are dropping like flies. Thirty years after a young man records the murders of his entire family, several wannabe film students dig up the footage and discover that an unnatural force lies within the tapes. With its amateur actors, overly choreographed scares and cheap effects, Playback draws mostly static.
Creepy news station archivist Quinn (Toby Hemingway) watches the infamous Harlan Diehl murder footage to help his buddy Julian (Johnny Pacar), who is doing a school project on the grisly murders. Something dark and twisted grabs Quinn after he watches the footage, and Quinn begins to coldly exhibit Harlan's murderous impulses. Meanwhile, Julian and several of his friends - Riley (Ambyr Childers), Deedee (Jennifer Missoni), Nate (Jonathan Keltz) and Brianna (Alessandra Torresani) - realize their school project may actually kill them.
The first few minutes of Playback are pretty decent. The opening flashback to the Diehl murders is cold and disturbing, and the scene culminates in Harlan (Luke Bonczyk) jumping from the porch and driving a knife into the chest of his sister. The only family member left alive is a baby, who is quickly recovered by police officers. When Playback jumps forward things become more pedestrian. Julian asks Quinn for help because he has access to camera equipment, but the other kids are less taken with Quinn's Hot Topic style and brusque attitude. The villain of Playback is apparently Harlan as channeled through Quinn, who operates in a kind of trance that he can also transfer to others. Once under Harlan's spell, Quinn begins murdering those around him. The victims are chosen for a reason that should be obvious to viewers in the first ten minutes of the film.
The IMDb plot summary for Playback indicates that "a cop investigates the case of a missing local teen." This is hilarious in light of how little Officer Frank Lyons (Slater) actually does in Playback. His character is really only involved in the plot because he buys hidden-camera locker room footage from Quinn. Slater does have one deliciously creepy conversation with Deedee, who he previously saw on his dirty spy footage, in the back of his cruiser, which is played more for camp than furthering the plot.
Playback is at least competently directed by Michael A. Nickles, and it moves forward at a decent clip. Unfortunately, the scares just aren't there. The audience always knows where Quinn is, so any suspense is squandered. Playback tries to adopt a self-aware attitude about horror films - cue the long conversation in a video store - but is never smart enough to pull it off. There is also the whole problem of the plot not really making sense. Regarding the whole transferring evil via electronics plot device, the why is never answered, and, since none of it really maters, Playback is better left unseen.
Magnet's 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is probably as good as this low-budget horror flick is ever going to look. The film appears reasonably detailed and textured, though the whole thing has a bargain-basement vibe. Skin tones are accurate and colors nicely saturated. Black levels are decent, and crush is kept to a minimum. There's some inherent softness in the image, but backgrounds are generally deep. There's no edge enhancement to report, and I noticed only a bit of aliasing and a few blown-out highlights.
When Playback looks to scare the audience, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty great. Action and frightening ambient effects are nicely defined and inhabit the surround and rear speakers. Unfortunately, these jump-scare sounds are recorded much louder than the dialogue, so viewers will likely be reaching for their remotes on occasion to turn up the softer scenes. The soundtrack's trash metal and dubstep pop is nicely balanced. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
The disc includes a couple of short extras: Behind the Scenes (7:35/HD) is a short making-of piece, and HDNet: A Look at Playback (4:43/HD) is a promo for the film from the premium cable network. Also included are an extensive Photo Gallery and the film's trailer (2:14/HD).
Playback is no better than most direct-to-video horror flicks. Thirty years after some grisly murders, several high school students watch home-video footage of the events and realize that something sinister has escaped from the long-hidden footage. The acting is average, the scares are scarce, and the plot is less than coherent. Skip It.
William lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.