Babak Anvari follows up ‘Under The Shadow’ with some shockingly uninspired jump-scares



Dir: Babak Anvari. US/UK. 2019. 94mins

A handsome, carefree man discovers just how quickly his seemingly happy life can unravel in Wounds, an initially intriguing horror movie that quickly descends into silliness. Armie Hammer does his best to bring fevered intensity to this stale fare, but writer-director Babak Anvari’s English-language debut never really gets us to care about its characters or the strange occurrences that start happening once our protagonist comes in contact with a sinister cell phone.

The shocks feel so arbitrary that the story is almost devoid of emotional involvement

Set for a March 29 release in the States, this Sundance premiere will benefit from the star power of Hammer and Dakota Johnson. But poor reviews may diminish commercial prospects, although the premise of an evil smartphone may be juicy enough to court genre fans.

Hammer plays Will, a New Orleans bartender with a bright, beautiful girlfriend, Carrie (Johnson), and a job that allows him to spend time with his flirty pal, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), who frequents his watering hole — albeit with her new boyfriend Jeffrey (Karl Glusman). One night after a fight breaks out at the bar, Will stumbles upon a cell phone left behind by an unknown patron. He decides to take the phone home, where he discovers disturbing photos of dead bodies and decapitated heads.

The origin of these sinister photos — and the reasons why the phone begins to warp Will’s mind — are the central mysteries of Wounds, as Anvari (the director of the acclaimed Under The Shadow) tries to balance psychological horror with a character study of a glib guy who doesn’t realise how good he has it. While that mix is interesting, but Wounds doesn’t do a good job with either narrative component, resulting in a film where the shocks feel so arbitrary that the story is almost devoid of emotional involvement.

Not that Hammer doesn’t give it his all. Best known for playing suave or smug men, the actor seems keen to mix things up by portraying an average guy who is a bit of a heel. (As we’ll learn, he’s got a drinking problem and a wandering eye.) Will receives upsetting texts on this abandoned phone and then starts experiencing horrifying visions, all of which conspire to drive him into madness. These developments require Hammer to grow progressively more unhinged, and while he’s able to dial up the urgency, Anvari’s screenplay (based on Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth) is so nonsensical that Hammer’s slow mental collapse feels more like a strained acting exercise than a genuine expression of Will’s inner trauma.

Also frustrating is that Wounds fails to successfully establish the parameters for the horror which is visiting Will and Carrie. Without revealing the twists, suffice to say that the phone is connected to deeper, more ancient terrors, but none of them have much resonance. (The film’s most potent image mostly just feels like a callback to The Ring.) And while the viewer can intuit that the horrors are meant to be a commentary on the festering darkness underneath Will’s amiable All-American demeanour, they’re not specific or scary enough to really feel like indictments of his personal character. Consequently, we’re stuck with a bunch of arbitrary jump scares and pointless freak-outs.

Johnson has little to do as Will’s girlfriend, while Beetz’s Alicia has a sexy rapport with Will, their attraction sparked by the fact that they know they have significant others waiting for them at home. But any time anyone in the ensemble starts to flesh out his or her character, Anvari brings us back to his uninspired horror narrative, piling on the histrionics and unconvincing frights. In Wounds, cockroaches crawl everywhere, weird rashes pop up in the strangest places, and portals to eerie realms become hypnotic harbingers of doom. But there’s nothing more terrifying in this film than the creative talent wasted on such shockingly mediocre material.

Production companies: Two & Two Pictures, AZA Films

US distribution: Anapurna. International distribution: Netflix

Producers: Lucan Toh, Babak Anvari, Christopher Kopp

Screenplay: Babak Anvari, based on the novella The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud

Production design: Chad Keith

Editing: Chris Barwell

Cinematography: Kit Fraser

Main cast: Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Zazie Beetz, Karl Glusman, Brad William Henke