“This thing is like my life,” Emma (Ashley Benson) tells a tech expert as she hands over her computer for servicing roughly halfway into “Ratter.” By that point, she’s stating the obvious. Told exclusively through Emma’s internet-connected devices, director Branden Kramer places the audience in the shoes of her stalker, peering into her life as a college student in New York after making the move from Wisconsin.
While the approach of confining a thriller to a computer screen still seems novel, utilizing the cameras on Emma’s laptop, smartphone and a few other gadgets she never thinks to turn off completely, such a treatment is the natural evolution of found-footage films. In fact, “Ratter” takes its place in this next wave just after Nacho Vigolondo terrorized Sasha Grey in the “Open Windows” and shortly before Timur Bekmambetov makes people fear their Facebook accounts in “Unfriended.” As with most films in the genre, there’s a suspension of disbelief required in accepting the premise since there has to be someone on the other side of the camera, though Kramer cleverly uses that question to build tension. Is it Emma’s ex-boyfriend that has hacked her network or possibly Michael (Matt McGorry), the new guy she’s met in her economics class? When the stalker finds the ability to zoom in or shift perspective, some hints can be sussed out based on what the lens brings into focus, but the film is often better for the lack of detail, drawing on the dread of unwittingly empowering those who could hurt us because of an overreliance on technology.
Although her character would rather not be seen, the film provides a nice showcase for Benson, not only required to give a performance but to capture it as well (credited as a camera operator). A character far more dimensional than it would seem at first, Benson brings a most welcome winsomeness to Emma that eventually turns to weariness as she figures out she’s being watched. Even when she’s alone at the start, there’s a reluctance to open up to others that makes it particularly cruel later once she does, only to discover her privacy invaded to such a horrific degree.
It’s a smartly modulated performance matched for the most part by Kramer’s pacing, which likely benefited from a test run with his similarly-themed short “Webcam.” There are a few missed opportunities – Rebecca Naomi Jones, a volcanic presence on Broadway in such productions as “American Idiot” and “Passing Strange,” is reduced to a largely thankless best friend role here, and the stalker’s threats, while creepy, are rather blunt. But the film still impressively manages to get under the skin without feeling exploitative – in fact, “Ratter” uses a history of helpless damsels in distress in slasher films to its great advantage, and although some may be left unsatisfied by “Ratter”‘s resolution, it’s more than frightening enough for anyone worried that they’re spending too much time in front of a screen. Carrying on the fine tradition of horror that serves as societal critique, Kramer provides a reflection of where we are that is truly scary.
“Ratter” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at Slamdance once more on January 28th at 2 pm at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City.