abandoned inns, Brian Austin Green, cinema, Curtiss Frisle, David de Lautour, debut feature, Don't Blink, dramas, Emelie O'Hara, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Fiona Gubelmann, horror, horror movies, independent films, indie horror film, isolated estates, isolation, Jayson Crothers, Joanne Kelly, Leif Gantvoort, Mena Suvari, Mike Verta, missing friends, mountain resort, Movies, mystery, romantic rivalry, Samantha Jacobs, supernatural, Travis Oates, vanished into thin air, weekend in the country, writer-director, Zack Ward
If you think about it, almost all horror films boil down to one central question: how much do you show/explain/reveal to the audience and, conversely, how much do you keep concealed from them? Do you show the whole monster or just a shoulder? Cut to black before the final assault or let the camera’s unblinking eye do its worst? Explain the whole thing via a complicated system of flashbacks and “ah ha!” moments or leave it open-ended so that your audience does the heavy-lifting? Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978) is the film that it is because of what he purposefully doesn’t show, whereas Zombie’s 2007 remake is the film it is because of what he does. It all comes down to that paraphrased adage “To show or not to show…that is the question.”
Voice-over actor-turned writer/director Travis Oates’ feature-length debut, Don’t Blink (2014) is a good example of a film knowing when to keep its mouth shut, even if the result ends up being more than a little vague and kind of arbitrary. Despite any reservations and/or complaints I might have about the film, itself, I have to absolutely give props where they’re due: Oates manages to avoid one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves (let’s call it oversharing, to be generous) and, in the process, turns in a modest, effective and suitably chilling little indie horror film. Toss in a pretty great location and you get a film that gets the job done, even if it’s not setting the world on fire. Sometimes, that’s victory enough.
Utilizing one of the mustiest conceits in the horror film playbook, a group of ten assorted couples, friends, enemies and frenemies all descend upon a suitably isolated location (in this case, a supremely creepy abandoned mountain resort lodge) for some of that good old-fashioned movie r & r that always seems to involved vacationing with folks you kind of hate. In one car, we have Tracy (Mena Suvari), her brother, Lucas (Curtiss Frisle) and her new boyfriend, Jack (Beverly Hills, 90210’s Brian Austin Green). In another car, Claire (Joanne Kelly) and Amelia (Emelie O’Hara), a couple of single girls on the prowl. For balance, we also get best friends, Alex (Zack Ward) and Sam (Leif Gantvoort), along with Sam’s girlfriend, Charlotte (Samantha Jacobs). And, of course, for maximum dramatic potential, we have Jack’s ex-girlfriend, Ella (Wilfred’s Fiona Gubelmann, once again caught in a love triangle) and her new boyfriend, Noah (David de Latour).
Once they’ve all arrived at the lodge, the group begins to notice a few things that make them all slightly uneasy. For one thing, the nearby lake has frozen solid, so fast, apparently, that a row-boat is stuck fast in the middle. This might be explained away by unseasonable weather if the surrounding area wasn’t, conversely, strangely warm. There also seems to be a decided lack of wildlife, including birds and fish: again, not so strange in and of itself but decidedly unsettling when one considers the remote wilderness locale. And then, of course, there’s the little matter of the lodge, itself: each and every guest seems to have just vanished into thin air, leaving behind warm bowls of food, purses, still-running vehicles and handily hidden messages with helpful declarations like “Help me!” and “Don’t blink.”
Just as the group gets down to the business of arguing amongst themselves, with Alex leading the charge to get the fuck out of Dodge, Tracy takes a cue from the other missing guests and just disappears, without so much as a trace. This, of course, does absolutely nothing to quell anyone’s nerves and pretty much wrecks Jack’s romantic weekend, all in one, fell swoop. Once Noah and Lucas follow suit, the rest of the group changes lanes from “rather concerned” to “full-on freaked out,” as they try to figure out what’s going on, all without vanishing themselves. The rules, as inexplicable as they may be, seem pretty simple: don’t stop looking at anyone, don’t take your eyes off them for even a second (in other words, “don’t blink”) or they’ll disappear.
As the group is slowly whittled down, one by one, the remaining “survivors” must band together (multiple eyes, in this case, really are better than two) in order to prevent a repeat performance. Will they be able to hold out until help arrives or are they doomed to disappear, just like the untold number before them? What, exactly, is going on in this picturesque place…and where do the people go if (and when) no one’s watching? They might not want to see but looking away could very well be the last thing any of them ever do.
For the most part, Don’t Blink is a very well-made indie horror flick, even if it never quite scales the heights to become more than that. The acting is pretty solid for this kind of thing, with Green coming out the worst (his performance as Jack is never believable, even if he’s always kind of likable) and Ward’s alpha-asshole take on Alex coming out the best: in between those two poles, the rest of the cast does just fine, even if none of them really stand out (Gubelmann, in particular, is just kind of there).
The film looks consistently good: cinematographer Jayson Crothers produces lots of nicely atmospheric shots, including plenty of cool overheads, and the creepy lodge location makes for a suitably beautiful, eerie location. While the film does feature plenty of red herrings in the form of visual and audio “fake-outs,” it never overuses jump scares, which is another big checkmark in the “plus” column. The script, for the most part, is good: the twist ending is obvious but strong and while not all of the dialogue has an authentic feel to it (Green, again, comes off the worst here), the group really does feel like they at least know each other, which is more than you can say for some micro-budget horror films.
Story-wise, the film is endlessly intriguing, even if it’s also more than a little vague and open-ended. While Oates allows for several different answers to their collective predicament (I, personally, favor a “Cabin in the Woods (2012)-type scenario but that’s probably just my over-active imagination), nothing concrete is ever determined or, to be honest, even strongly hinted at. For the most part, the group just disappears, one by one, and no one is ever the wiser. While I’m sure that some viewers out there might call foul on this, I still prefer this kind of “choose your own adventure” tact over the always eye-rolling “take my hand and I’ll walk you through every nuance” approach that many indie films seem to have tattooed over their collective hearts. Do we ever really know why the group is disappearing? Nope…and the film is actually stronger for it.
All in all, I enjoyed Oates’ debut and certainly look forward to seeing more from the filmmaker: hopefully, this wasn’t just a one-and-done but actually the beginning to the next phase of his career. While Don’t Blink never really explodes out of the box and will never be mistaken as an unsung classic, it also doesn’t make a lot of obvious mistakes: the movie is eerie, tense, interesting and no more weighted-down by clichés than at least two dozen other films I might mention. Not every horror film can be “the next big thing” but I’m more than happy to say that Don’t Blink is a perfectly good way for any horror/suspense fan to spend 90 minutes.