How Christian Slater got roped into this madness I'll never know. To be honest, he's the best part of this film, and he's barely featured - and he's also a perverted pedophile. Playback is meant as a combination of The Ring and The Amityville Horror, where mysterious film footage from the scenes of a real murder allow an evil entity to possess the watcher. It's an interesting combination, and in a better movie, the premise might have worked if handled better. But Playback is too focused on its young protagonists to deal with the darker ideas at work in the film.
Our protagonist Julian (Johnny Pacar) is trying to create a slasher film for his journalism class based on the real life murders committed by Harlan Diehl 17 years earlier. We see this killing in all its glory thanks to a handycam used by Diehl during the proceedings, and this gory opening is one of the only scenes that really works. Since Julian is digging up all of this dirty footage (literally), he's opened the door for an evil spirit inhabiting Diehl to come into the world again, using cameras and video equipment to possess or kill them.
There's a moment I just have to bring up in Playback; it was something I couldn't really understand. Julian asks his friends what their favorite horror movies are; their responses are The Ring, Scream, and Freaky Friday. That last one is meant as a joke, but it comes as a shock to me that the writer/director of this film, Michael Nickles, would allow the characters to choose such boring films as their favorites. The stranger part is that Julian, as a fan of horror, doesn't denounce either of them for their lame picks. It feels so sanitized, as though Playback is simply working off of ten years of horror experience rather than the entire gamut of the genre. Sure, there's a Peeping Tom reference at the video store, but that seems obligatory, as though director Michael Nickles once read that Peeping Tom had significant influence on the horror genre and decided to include it. I sincerely hope that our current generation of horror fans aren't growing up thinking that The Ring is one of the best horror movies out there.
The boring answers these teens give for their favorite horror films transfers over to how well Playback succeeds as a horror film. It's a fairly boring, derivative affair, one that is entirely too predictable after the film introduces a missing baby plot. Nickles assumes that the viewer might want to see a bunch of rich, good-looking "teens" party it up for the first half of the film, splicing that with a hip indie rock soundtrack that's entirely out of place. Maybe I'm just getting old, but the constant pop culture references become cloying, as though Playback is trying to shove it down our throats.
The horror aspect isn't much better. Most of the film is focused on getting Julian to meet up with bad boy Quinn while Quinn kills off all of Julian's friends - but this is lacking tension because Quinn sits around watching old tapes, trying to get his spy cameras into girls' rooms for Christian Slater. The premise of how Quinn kills his victims doesn't make a lick of sense, either. He pushes on a television, transferring his spirit or something and creating slaves. I don't know, something like that; it all gets pretty tedious after the third or fourth time.
The ending is very drawn out, and that's in part due to the extreme lack of scares earlier in the film. The difficulties the kids have in creating their own horror film are some of the same that plague Playback; we're left with too many ambient shots, too much footage of inane characters partying and joking about orgasms instead of exploring how films can be potentially damaging to the audience depending on the content. It seems that Playback tries to explore a message about what kind of films we watch, the violence that we might encounter on TV news, but it's dropped without any kind of response.
Playback lacks suspense, and the only time it really works is when it elicits cheap jump scares. Even then, the film is entirely bland, devoid of any flavor. The actors are all okay, but the amount of teenage frolicking in this film gets annoying. In any event, Playback does a good job of making sure no one ever plays it again.
Playback on Rotten Tomatoes