Mark Polish, the less prolific filmmaking twin of Michael Polish, has little nice to say about today’s youngsters in Murmur, which aims to be a Blair Witch for digital natives. Throwing a half-dozen annoying social-media producers into the forest with only their cell phones and a deeply dubious game they won’t stop playing, it might’ve looked like a cautionary fable if only it maintained any sort of distance from its protagonists. Instead, it’s wholly on board for screens-based storytelling and TikTok attention spans, the result being that most viewers not addicted to such stuff will find it insufferable from its first moments. Even setting such opinions aside, its value as an unscary horror pic is next to nil, and as screens-based mayhem goes, it ranks far below peers like Spree.
Murmur is the name of a new app that, like Pokémon Go (hello, old people), uses your phone’s screen to integrate digital elements with the real world. It’s some kind of game, but nobody in this five-person YouTube crew seems to know anything more than that. So why not rent a minivan, trek to some completely abandoned part of the Redwood National Park, and deliberately get ourselves stranded while we figure it out on the fly? Surely videos of that will result in plenty of engagement on the channel? Flash-forwards to a press conference, in which local authorities discuss the bodies found alongside six cell phones, suggest things aren’t going to go that way.
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(A sixth person — their estranged buddy Maze — came out here independently, and will meet up with our gang after being separated from his own companion, and seeming to forget she even exists.)
Angel (Cyrus Arnold) and Buster (Johnny Jay Lee) represent some of the noisiest kinds of content producers: respectively, those who never know when to stop making lame jokes (especially about sex organs), and those who won’t stop trying to maximize the screen appeal of daily life. If you find the aggressive self-promotion of the average YouTube channel grating, you’re going to love watching Buster film take after take of the same intro, trying to hit the right note of high-energy overconfidence.
Joining these two are Tiger and Kenzie (Logan Polish, the director’s daughter, and Megan Lee), and Zach (Brandon Wilson), the quiet guy manning the group’s prosumer camera equipment. Colin Ford’s Maze (Tiger’s brother, real name Matthew), whose channel is apparently much hotter than the one these guys run, will cross paths with them soon, swinging a real sword around in the woods for some reason while wearing a VR headset.
If you’re a character in a slasher film, odds are you’re among the most annoying representatives of your demographic that a screenwriter (probably twice your age) can dream up. But these kids don’t even seem to like each other much, and they scatter out through the woods with no clear motivation except to, understandably, get out of each others’ earshot. A tempting idea, but in this case a bad one.
Polish offers little of the POV business found in conventional slasher flicks, instead going for a much less persuasive mood-setter: We see a bunch of creepy-crawly stuff (from sinister flora to wild boars and zombies) that exists nowhere but on the screens our heroes are glued to. If they’d just put down the phones, maybe they’d be less prone to stepping in bear traps and getting impaled on tree branches?
Those things both happen, with so little drama in the execution that you may miss the event itself and be stuck with only the long suffering such accidents entail. While some members of the party worry about bleeding out, others are far away, arguing with the app’s customer support phone reps or discovering decaying houses they know they shouldn’t enter. But they do, uncovering more questions the movie doesn’t care enough to answer.
Amid the careless camera-jostling, free-flowing insults and complaints, a bored viewer might nitpick details of Polish’s technical approach. In a movie ostensibly built out of cell phone and security-cam footage, how do the visible sprocket holes of celluloid and static reminiscent of VHS tracking problems pop up here? Is cellphone data coverage really this great in the Redwoods? Who would subscribe to the videos these uncharismatic guys are making?
“Honestly,” one of them says midway through, “I’m like why is this game fucking happening?” Great question.