Director: Benji Wragg
Writer: Benji Wragg
Cast: Oliver Midson
Running time: 6mins
One of the reasons why I try to avoid researching a new filmmaker before I see their film is that past performance is not indicative of future results. In the small world of independent film, however, it becomes increasingly difficult not to know anything about somebody from another production.
I did not know much about Benji Wragg before watching Answer Your Phone, but I had seen him act in the admittedly rather funny 48-hour film (readers will know what I usually make of such projects) Peace By Piece. ‘Informed’ by this previous outing in a jaunty short comedy, I have to admit I was utterly wrong about what I should expect from Benji Wragg.
Answer Your Phone is a concise, measured, unnerving piece – and ultimately, a good example of why you should avoid pigeonholing artists according to one tiny impression of their work. In just under six minutes, Wragg’s film manages to successfully marry an impactful piece of social commentary with the effective genre staples of an atmospheric supernatural horror; delivering a disturbing narrative that will follow you into the real world.
We follow an unnamed protagonist, ably played by Oliver Midson, on a late-night journey home. Midson’s face is a masque of anxiety, ghost-like in its own right as he hurries through a shadowy carpark. The actor’s pale, drawn face does most of the heavy-lifting in a wisely stripped-back script, while checking over his shoulder amid the cavernous parking complex, he gives off the frenetic, wiry energy of a fox as the hounds close in.
There is scarcely any dialogue throughout the film, but honestly with a performance like this, it is not necessary. Where many other filmmakers try to over-explain a concept, trying to cram in as much exposition as possible even during a short, Answer Your Phone smartly manages to contain most such inclinations. There are no excruciating explanatory conversations of what we see, no protracted flashbacks. We get everything we need from two locations, and the silent dread of our lead character, with Wragg and his team clearly living by the maxim that less can be more.
With time, money and human resources in short supply for independent filmmakers, the importance of boxing clever like this cannot be overstated. Illustrating how the film gets the most from simple ingredients, in the remote opening setting of an echoing, deserted parking complex, Darby Maxwell’s cinematography constantly draws our attention to the yawning void surrounding Midson.
Deep, wide shots emphasise his vulnerability. Stationed in the middle of this setting, he is both completely exposed to anything that would do him harm, and entirely obscured from anyone who might be able to help. The hopelessness of his position is further illustrated by the work of Colourist Daniel Bugeja, who uses washed out, pallid tones to paint a picture that seems devoid of any warmth, or possible source of salvation.
Anyone who remembers my review of Roadkill will remember my particular gripe that Xavier Wehrli’s ghost-story made literally no use of the parking complex several scenes occurred in. Well, if you wanted an example of how to actually make use of such a venue, this is it: this is how you do it. Everything about this scenario is telling us to worry about what is lurking in the shadows. Nothing is quite what it seems though – and Wragg’s story manages to use this as a mechanism to entirely wrong-foot viewers; especially those of us well versed in horror tropes.
As Midson continues to scurry through the carpark, a text arrives on his phone. Someone named Nancy wants to know, “Are you almost home? xx”. Midson stumbles on, visibly panicked – though once more the surroundings and cinematography cue us to expect this is because of where he is.
In contrast, when he finally completes his frantic dash for home, the appearance of his apartment conjures up memories of the ‘lull’ periods in most supernatural horrors. For the sake of pacing, and building tension, you can’t just have your character tormented constantly, wherever they are. You need to establish areas or times when they are safe, when we can learn to relate to them as human beings rather than simply victims of the paranormal. As a result, when the colour grading suddenly switches to warmer, yellowy tones, and the cinematography reflects the smaller, well-lit space of a flat where there are no corners or shadows for creeps to leap from, it elicits an almost Pavlovian response from the audience. We have been trained by genre conventions to feel safer, at ease, in this context, and so we momentarily let our guard down.
It is then that the phone begins to buzz once more. It’s Nancy again. Why hasn’t our protagonist answered his phone? And with a sudden, sinking feeling, many people will likely realise they’ve been had. The film has gloriously subverted our assumptions about what to expect from this film – a story that was so clearly flagging up horror conventions has done so to fake us out, to leave us at our most vulnerable when we are at our least suspecting.
Anyone who has been trapped in that endless nightmare of an emotionally abusive relationship will recognise the utter despair etched on Midson’s face in these closing moments. When the simple buzzing of a phone can turn you into a helpless statue; your stomach churning, your mind spinning, as a toxic cocktail of belittling comments, thinly-veiled threats, and rage-fuelled allegations cascade down upon you.
In this moment, Wragg’s lighting shifts the film into an Argento-esque nightmare sequence, with a backing of glowing blue and foreground of incandescent scarlet, foreshadowing the arrival of the controlling presence Midson was actually dreading all along. Indeed, this touch might have been enough on its own to literalise his perception of his partner as an otherworldly entity – enslaving him with its seemingly supernatural rage – while the deployment of some Halloween makeup to further illustrate this side of Nancy might undermine the final effect a little.
At the same time, her simple arrival in shot, demanding Midson explain himself, would make a fine bookend to the film. It does not need multiple crash zooms, or indeed a cut-away shot of the doorway to imply some kind of violent contact between the pair. The conclusion is horrific enough, and would be understood to be as much, without it. However, beyond these two minor indulgences, Wragg’s production is impeccably disciplined – and bodes extremely well for his future projects.
My initial expectations of Wragg’s filmmaking were founded on minimal amounts of information, and a great deal of speculation – so I am not entirely surprised that I was entirely wrong on that front. However, two decades of horror films have left me feeling like I have seen it all, and know what to expect. Being flummoxed by the trajectory of Wragg’s horror is a much less expected experience – and is all the better for it.