Nate (Nathaniel Atcheson) wakes up in his apartment, seemingly the victim of an epic night of drinking that had left him unconscious on the floor of his apartment. As he struggles to come to, he hears frantic knocking at his door, which he opens to reveal his friends Liz (M. Elizabeth Hughes), Laura (Laura Stokes), Will (Will Prescott), Lisa (Lisa Francesca Gallo), Mike (Mike Danner) and Mike’s girlfriend Simone (Sarah Newswanger). They rushed over to his apartment in response to a text message he supposedly sent about some emergency… only Nate didn’t send the message, and he can’t seem to find his phone. Which is problematic when his phone texts everyone again, this time with the message that “one of you is going to die today.”
Things get stranger when a delivery man shows up with a package addressed to everyone, requiring all their signatures. They sign for it and open the package, revealing a number of screenplays with the title of “Dead Herring.” Text messages inform the group to read certain pages of the script giving away their death scenes, and then they are told that if they obey the mystery texter’s instructions, they might make it out alive.
The basic trappings of Dead Herring are not the most unique; usually when a bunch of people are assembled in one place to be menaced by some unknown, sinister mastermind, they’re strangers to each other and their hidden relationships or connections are later revealed (such as in the Saw sequels, Clue, etc). In this case, they all know each other, all work in the film industry in Los Angeles in some capacity, but they’re all keeping secrets from one another. “Friends” in the loosest of definitions, who’d rather not tell the truth to each other than, say, not be menaced by text messages or the knife-wielding guy in a mask that is on guard outside the apartment, making sure no one leaves.
Which is one of the hardest cases of suspension of disbelief in this film. Why not read the screenplay for clues, come clean to each other or, I don’t know, not run away from the solo guy stalking the apartment and instead fight back (they easily outnumber him)? It’s rough, because you can tell the filmmakers are trying to come up with reasons why everyone would stay put and go along with the thriller aspects of the tale, but it’s just so hard to believe. Instead, the answer for everyone’s actions winds up being, “they’re stupid, cowardly or just really not the type of people that I actually care about enough to want to know what happens.” Which is a problem.
On top of that, beyond the masked man leaning menacingly at the eye-hole of the apartment door, they’re mostly being victimized by text messages. So, for the majority of the film, you’re waiting for people to react to said text messages, which is not the most exciting thing to watch by any stretch. Considering the type of people the main characters turn out to be, however, menace by text message makes sense, even if it doesn’t make for much suspense.
All that said, the film looks pretty good. Opening shots of Los Angeles are particularly gorgeous, and the more stylistically-friendly shots in the film’s final third are much appreciated. Obviously the filmmakers involved know how to use the equipment at their disposal well, which isn’t as commonplace as you’d hope or imagine. And in light of the budget being, if the film’s website is to be believed, only $3,000, this film sets an impressive bar for the level of professionalism that can be accomplished with very little.
The film is also worth watching for the reveal of who is behind everything (though you’ll probably guess far ahead of time), the why and the explanation of the what. Up until the film finally comes clean with what’s going on, it’s predominantly a case of spending too much time with people you just don’t want to spend that much time with; it’s mysterious enough to keep your attention for the eventual climax, but it doesn’t engender good will getting there.
When it does get there though, it flips the film on its head. Not just the narrative, while it is obvious in how everything is redefined there, it actually raised my opinion of the entire thing. I know, this sounds vague, but I don’t want to give away the reveal. And while it may seem contradictory to the first chunk of this review, my change of heart on the film, due to the reveal, isn’t based solely on the “twist” aspect of it, but how it suddenly becomes a satire of being a satire of itself. It gets so awkwardly meta that it deserves another investigation, and even more layers, from a filmmaking standpoint again, not necessarily the straight-up narrative, come into focus. The title suddenly seems more apropos for various reasons. Basically, I wasn’t too keen on the first two thirds of this flick, but it more than turned the corner for me.
In the end, though, I can imagine how it would be hard for others to appreciate the film, particularly if they don’t go as over-the-moon for the ending as I did. If you don’t dig what the film is ultimately selling, it’s a bunch of talk big, do little, film industry douchebags in Los Angeles behaving stupid and shady while pretending to be friends with each other, which isn’t all that compelling. For me, the film comes around and works by the end credits, but even I had my doubts for a while and wouldn’t be surprised if others found it even more lacking overall than I ultimately did.
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