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Finally, a horror-thriller that's horrifying and thrilling!
I was privileged to be able to see "On Air" in its initial debut at the Los Angeles Screamfest film festival.
Wanting to write a horror screenplay myself, I have spent much of the last year watching what I am told are the "best of the best" examples from this genre that have been produced during the last 4 or 5 years. And I had begun to despair -- movie after movie failed to thrill or to horrify me in any genuine fashion, and none have come close to the thrill I experienced in the theater back in the mid-70s with the release of Jaws, a film which literally scared the pants off me.
"On Air," happily, has broken that streak. How the filmmakers managed this remains partially a mystery to me, though -- as a professor of cinema -- I am busily trying to dissect the experience. It would certainly help if I owned a copy of the film but, or course, nobody does at this point. Clearly, however, a number of factors have played a part in my enjoyment of this film. First, its foreign origins. "On Air" is shot in German, with English subtitles and, like many films from outside of the Hollywood system, I found it boldly refreshing in terms of its story, directing, and characterizations. This movie is adult and smart and -- culturally -- a little frightening/disorienting at the same time that it employs familiar conventions from the world of horror in Hollywood -- suspense, a serial killer, scary scenes at night, horrific violence, etc. Horror movies have traditionally gotten some of their thrills from their remote settings; A story such as this, set in a completely different country and in a different language, benefits all the more from that physical and cultural distance.
Then there is the story, about a talk radio host who is inadvertently pulled into a tense game of life and death with one of his psychopathic call-ins. Given that we are told the story, sympathetically, from his point of view, our involvement in the drama steadily intensifies as the stakes are raised for this poor man. Then, to twist the knife even further, we come to learn that there are significant things about the host himself we have yet to learn, which intensifies his plight and, by extension, ours all the more.
"On Air" starts off strong, with clean writing and characterization, and the web of characters, relationships, delightful twists, and overall suspense continues to build to a literally heart-pounding conclusion. At points in this film I was literally on the edge of my seat, and chewing on my knuckles. It's been a long time since I felt that in the theater, and it felt pretty damn good.
While I wish this film great success and hope, one day, to add it to my own DVD collection, I fear it may lose some U.S. viewers due to its foreign setting and subtitles (many Americans love the familiar and hate to read), and due to its carefully-crafted slow build-up of tension, which relies at times on the memory and intelligence of its audience. Simply put, "On Air" is not as easy or mindless as many other horror films and some viewers may be put off by this. But, for those who stay the course, and allow themselves to be pulled into this eerily unfamiliar and disquietingly-dark world, the shocks and emotional payoffs toward the conclusion are enormous and well-worth the journey.
"On Air" impacted me on a visceral level, and stayed with me long after leaving the theater. And the simple fact that this film has taught me how to feel scared again in a horror film is very telling. The old formulas and elements can still work if handled by filmmakers with a fresh outlook and strong creative vision. As the radio talk show protagonist proclaims early in the film: "Pirate Radio "Nighthawk" is back on the air." So, it seems, is screen horror that is genuinely horrific.
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