"Dude, I just came up with, like, six different ways of using chains to kill people."
I sincerely hope that is how Chain Letter came into existence. Any other explanation suggesting a structured approach would just be depressing. The entire slapdash affair is built around the flimsiest of concepts by a director who doesn't have the foggiest idea of how to pull off a horror film. But, I'm getting ahead of myself again. Let me pull back for a moment and describe what the film is about. A bunch of pretty, young teenagers are systematically dismantled by a madman with a penchant for chains. Oh look, that was quick.
Sorry. Let me try that once more (with spirit).
Jessie (Nikki Reed) and her friends are your typical batch of high school kids. They fill out college applications, flirt with cute boys and are stalked by crazed killers...you know, the usual. Okay, so that last part is a bit out of the ordinary. I guess that only started when Jessie's friend's brother forwarded a chain letter to a bunch of Jessie's other friends. It seems as though the originator of the letter has dark deeds on his mind. He especially hates it when kids delete the letter without forwarding it to other impressionable teens. He has an especially nasty surprise in store for those troublemakers. In fact, he also has surprises in store for the kids who do follow his rules. I guess what I'm saying is he really likes killing kids. With chains. A lot.
I know effective horror movies can be built around brutally simple premises. Even though I've made a few jabs at the killer's weapon of choice in this film, that's not really why I have a problem with it. My issue is that director (and co-writer) Deon Taylor's film is a subpar and soulless product which resembles a horror flick, only in the sense that plenty of people die in fairly awful ways. The fact that we care little about who is dying or why they are being killed is a testament to how little thought has gone into every aspect of the production which is not a gore effect. There is a laughably transparent bid at relevance by couching the central threat in terms of the invasive nature of modern technology. The killer is a talented blacksmith and has mad skillz with computer viruses, cell phone GPS trackers and video surveillance. Sure, that's believable.
If I keep yammering on about the killer it's only because I don't have anything compelling to say about the other characters. To call them cardboard cutouts would be an insult to cardboard and the process of creating cutouts. I can't even find fault with the actors because in order to do something poorly, you still have to be given something to do. The vast majority of the characters are lucky if they get a single defining characteristic. There's the bitchy girl, the black guy, the gym jock, the car dude, the masturbator (no joke) and the bland chick (our lead). To describe them in any greater detail, I would have to start cataloging the myriad ways in which they are dispatched. Keith David and Brad Dourif show up in a couple of small roles but leave no impact as a cop and a creepy teacher respectively.
Looking back over what I've written, I realize I haven't said a single positive thing about Chain Letter. Allow me to rectify that by giving credit to the only element of this enterprise that works on any level: the gore. The film goes out of its way to front-load the proceedings with its bloodier kills. They may be silly and unrealistically staged but their grisly nature is undeniable. The shock effect tapers off as the killer becomes increasingly boring with each successive murder. I believe a big part of the problem here is that the constant need to include chains really limits where the film can go with its slasher setups. A strict set of rules quickly suffocates creativity especially when applied by a filmmaker who lacks imagination in the first place.