Recently, my boss’s wife told me a horrific story about the time she woke up to the sound of a rat scrabbling up the side of her bed. Why do I mention this? Mainly because I haven't been able to shake it since she told me, but also because it started me thinking about why certain scary stories appeal. (Did I end up listening out for rats in bed last night? Yes. And will I again tonight and tomorrow night? Mmmm. Oh dear.)
One of my favourite psychological thrillers/ horror movies of the past few years is a small low-budget film, called Four Boxes (2009), which seems to have passed beneath most people’s radar.
The story follows Trevor (Justin Kirk) and Rob (Sam Rosen) out on a job for their company "Go Time Liquidators", a business which sells the belongings of recently deceased people on eBay. Trevor and Rob move into the home of just dead, Bill Zill, to spend the week sorting through his possessions.
Things get complicated when Amber (Terryn Westbrook), Rob’s fiancé and also Trevor’s ex-girlfriend, arrives to keep them company, and then creepy as they sort through the dead man’s mysterious possessions. The gang find and become hooked on fourboxes.tv, an ex-camgirl website bookmarked on his laptop on which a new resident (who they nickname “Havoc”) seems not to realise he is being watched and appears to be carrying out bizarre and perhaps deadly preparations. Is it real? What should they do about it? Or should they just keep watching because that’s what the internet’s for?
Rob, Amber and Trevor discover fourboxes.tv
Four Boxes has been described by its creators, husband and wife team Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber, as “Rear Window on the internet”. An atmosphere of cabin fever, paranoia, and apathy pervade the film with its muted colours, soulless suburban McMansion development, and the excellent melancholic track “Irene” by Canadian songwriter Caribou. The grainy pixelated images of “Havoc”, in which you can’t quite see what’s going on, add to the suspense and the repetitive early-videogame-esque soundtrack we hear every time the characters view FourBoxes.tv plays on your nerves in all the right ways.
The characters are interesting - every one of them seems to be on their own slightly wrong path, self-obsessed, and hankering after empty or unattainable goals. As the trio sort through the house and pick through the remains of Bill Zill’s life, it becomes increasingly creepy – cryptic scrawled notes, defaced photos, strange collections of objects and the crime scene tape still up in the attic from his wife’s suicide six months earlier – at the same time that tensions within the group threaten to self-combust.
Liquidising unclaimed estates is hard work...
Which leads me to the twist. I kind of hate revealing that there's a twist because it means that you go into a film waiting for the “aha!” moment rather than letting it slink up on you. I don’t want to say much about it, other than to point out that it's genuinely surprising. I almost always see a twist coming (I once ruined a date by leaning over to my companion ten minutes into The Sixth Sense and whispering: “Do you think he’s dead?”) and although there’s an element of smug self-satisfaction that comes with this "skill", I do like an actual honest-to-god-I-did-not-see-that-coming surprise once in a while. What’s more, the filmmakers have gone to some effort to put in scenes and dialogue to make the film an interesting watch for a second viewing (yes, it’s that sort of twist!) and although I wouldn’t say that the ending pays off completely, it’s stayed with me and still has me thinking about it two years later.
Four Boxes’s budget was only $40,000 (raised from 25 friends and family members of the filmmakers) but it has good writing, good acting and good direction to carry it through so it's hard to imagine how more money could have made it better. It puts things in sharp perspective when you realise that 4,875 Four Boxes could have been made for the cost of one Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon (Michael Bay, I’m talking to you here!)
One of the great things about Four Boxes is that you don't know quite what sort of film it's going to turn out to be. Is it a story of Trevor's unravelling obsession with the website, the love triangle between the three friends or the mystery of the house? Without giving too much away, the fears explored in this film seem very modern. Fear of what we might find on the internet and what that might do to us. But perhaps the fear the filmmakers want to bring to the forefront is the underlying sense of what our instant gratification, empathy-lacking, grandiosity-infused, voyeuristic internet culture has done to us already.
For more information on Four Boxes visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt1144545