Panic Button Review
In recent years there’s been a massive spike in homegrown horror film production. According to the figures there are currently more being produced annually than there has been since the seventies. Hammer horror is back courtesy of comparatively small-scale affairs such as Wake Wood and The Resident, not to mention the more widely seen Let Me In. Even television is getting in on the game thanks to Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set and BBC3’s recently concluded The Fades. More importantly the cult favourites didn’t begin and end with that initial one-two punch of 28 Days Later and Dog Soldiers. Since then we’ve seen Shaun of the Dead, The Descent, Creep, Eden Lake, Kill List and more besides, each with their own healthy share of admirers. Next week brings the cinema release of The Awakening, written by Stephen Volk of Ghostwatch fame, which Ian Sandwell has just described on this site as “easily one of the finest horrors created on these shores in the last few years”. In other words, the going is good - and there’s little sign of the momentum abating just yet.
Of course, with greater productivity comes an influx of low-budget imitators. Indeed, part of the current groundswell can no doubt be attributed to the number of digitally shot affairs appearing straight onto the home video market. In which case alarm bells really should be ringing for Panic Button. It screened at this year’s FrightFest and is due a trio of showings over the next few days at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff (the city in which it was filmed), but effectively the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD will mark its debut. It was also shot digitally and quite obviously made on a tight budget. Yet Panic Button seems quite happy to defy expectations and proves itself to be a tightly controlled and quietly impressive piece of filmmaking. It uses its low budget as a virtue and is fully aware of its own limitations, although that isn’t to say that certain aspirations aren’t there. Indeed, the digital camera in this case was the RED ONE (previously used by filmmakers as diverse as Werner Herzog and Kevin Smith), whilst the film opts for a 2.35:1 ’scope frame; clearly there was a desire to make Panic Button look as professional as possible.
The strong visual element is key given how Panic Button mostly unfolds within a confined space. Using a borrowed set that once featured in The Da Vinci Code, the action is played out almost entirely aboard a private jet. It’s making its way to New York, or so the four passengers have been led to believe. They’ve won an all expenses paid trip to the city through a social networking site by the name of all2gethr.com, effectively Facebook in disguise. Once aboard they’re treated to champagne and comfort, but also some “in-flight entertainment”. Initially it appears these are just more games - the chance to win a trip to Broadway or a brand new 4x4 - but things quickly turn nasty. Thanks to their interactions on all2gethr.com our four winners have revealed quite a bit about themselves and, needless to say, each has unsavoury aspects to their past. Their sexual histories, instances of cyber-bullying and more come out into the open as the voice that plays over the jet’s intercom reveals he’s far more in control than they are. As the games play out it also becomes apparent that this ’Big Brother’-type figure has access to his passenger’s loved one - and if they don’t play along then torture, and possibly murder, are also on the cards…
Even from such a brisk overview it’s easy to make connections between Panic Button and earlier horror films. The whole ‘terror in the skies’ concept is a bona fide sub-genre, encapsulating everything from famed Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet to Snakes on a Plane; for Panic Button’s purposes the nearest modern horror equivalent is arguably Wes Craven’s Red Eye. Elsewhere we’ve seen the whole reality TV dimension pre-figured in Marc Evan’s underrated My Little Eye and, of course, the ‘Big Brother’ figure doling out punishments for previous wrongdoings has direct connotations with Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. To say there are derivative elements would therefore be a bit of an understatement. Yet whilst Panic Button does much that has been done before, it also does it really quite well.
The cast and crew of Panic Button are almost entirely unknowns, though each comes with some experience in short filmmaking, documentaries and/or television. Amongst the four passengers you may recognise Jack Gordon from his small role in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank or Scarlett Johnson from her two-year stint playing Vicki Fowler on EastEnders between 2003 and 2004. Editor John Gillanders had previously worked on the Torchwood TV series, whilst cinematographer Simon Poulter has tried his hand at everything from commercials and panel shows to the acclaimed documentary Young@Heart. He also worked on director Chris Crow’s first feature from 2010, Devil’s Bridge, which is finally due onto DVD in the UK in early 2012. This collective cv of Panic Button’s key players may be somewhat erratic and eclectic, but it holds them in good stead for a low budget genre flick. The performers come with plenty of experience yet remain unfamiliar enough that it works in their roles’ favour. Meanwhile those behind the camera, thanks to that mixture of methods and mediums to their previous work, are able to stick firmly to the job at hand. There’s no needless flash or ‘calling card’ elements to their work, merely a desire to serve the film.
When combined with the skills of its practitioners, the budget has a tendency to work in Panic Button’s favour. It captures some of the cheap glamour of reality TV, especially during the early scenes prior to boarding the private jet. It also prevents the film from becoming too outlandish and instead has to rely on its ideas as a means of delivering the scares. No doubt social media and social networking fears will fuel an entire subgenre of horror flicks in the coming years, primarily because those fears are genuine ones: occupying a grey area between the public and the private, what does our digital footprint say about ourselves and how much of that do we want revealed? Of course, Panic Button pushes the boundaries of realism by encompassing snuff videos, online suicide and plenty more into its characters’ online interactions, but nonetheless the basic concept remains a strong one. Moreover, the strength of the performances (which move beyond mere ‘types’ - Michael Jibson as the obnoxious one, and so on - as the film progresses) and the general no-nonsense approach helps to keep things grounded.
There are flaws, certainly, as we should no doubt expect from such a film with its limited budget and equally limited production period. (The ‘making of’ which finds a place on the disc is refreshingly candid about such concerns.) But there is also much to enjoy and be really quite impressed by. Under the circumstances Panic Button is perhaps best seen as one of those films you’d happily stumble across late night on TV or be glad you made an impulse rental. It’s ultimately a minor film, but one that also possesses a huge amount of promise for those involved. I’m eager to sample Crow’s debut Devil’s Bridge when it emerges on disc in March and equally keen to see where he goes next. Likewise Frazer Lee (one of four credited screenwriters) who was brought in to force some polish and shape onto the initial script ideas and as such should take proper credit. Between them - and plenty of others - they’ve fashioned an effectively little horror that deserves to make an impact and lead on to bigger things.
Panic Button arrives onto Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on November the 7th courtesy of Showbox and their Cine Britannia imprint. In each case we get a single disc housing both film and extras, one of which is exclusive to the Blu. It was the Blu-ray which was supplied for review purposes and so it is this edition that will come under consideration. For the most part the presentation is a decent one, with a fine level of detail and a soundtrack (available as both DTS-HD 5.1 or PCM stereo) that ably delivers the strong sound design. At times the film can seem a little flat visually, though I’m tempted to put this down to the production and a reflection of the low budget. That particular sheen of a digital production is ever present and, of course, the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is maintained. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
The key additions amongst the special features are a pair of featurettes, one of which is a 22-minute ‘making of’, the other being an 18-minute look at how the filmmakers set about getting Panic Button made. (This latter piece is the Blu-ray exclusive.) Both are pleasingly honest and candid portraits of low-budget filmmaking, fully acknowledging how the film chased investor appeal when the initial concepts were conceived. The key players are on hand for both to allow for a full account of the making and as such prove worth a look. Note, however, that both are full of spoilers and should be avoided until after you’ve viewed the main feature.
Elsewhere the disc also provides a collection of trailers, a gallery of production still, a three-minute gag reel, an outtake involving a bit of on-set goofing around and, finally, two deleted scenes which were both no doubt cut for pacing reasons. As with the film itself, optional subtitles are not available for any of the additional features.