Jael Elizabeth Steinmeyer
Found Footage and Internet Stalker-Thriller
Trivia Director Michael Goi is best known as the cinematographer for Glee
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Megan is Missing (2011)
29th May 13
Two very different underage girls learn – the toughest way imaginable – the dangers of meeting up with a charismatic guy they have chatted with online. It was different in the days of being “Pen Pals” with lonely Mildred from Dorset in the late 80’s.
“This is a movie born out of rage” writer-director Goi, a cinematographer better known for his work on TV’s Glee and American Horror Story, told Fangoria magazine. He’s not kidding : the experience of watching Megan Is Missing is closer to being blindfolded, bundled into the boot of a car and dumped in a farm house populated exclusively by leering rapists than it is to Glee. Though watching Glee for longer than 10 consecutive minutes sometimes makes you yearn for that kind of experience.
Goi has made a movie that riffs on two fertile sub-genres: the found-footage horror movie and the technophobic 21st century internet-stalker thriller following such diverse pictures as Hard Candy, Catfish and David Schwimmer’s impressive Trust. This particular film, banned in Australia and unlikely to be released in the UK, offers a nihilistic descent into despair and suffering, and ends with the unflinching portrayal of the slow, painful death of a 14 year old girl. There is no message, nor is there any sense of hope. Goi’s only intention is to show us the ugliness of What Happens out there in Facebook / MSN / Skype / My Space / Twitter land. If you’re a parent, don’t expect to find anything reassuring within. If you’re a human being, prepare to wish you were a member of some other species.
Like so many of its contemporaries, Megan Is Missing boasts of being “based on true events” (Goi was inspired by a handful of separate cases rather than one specific one) and offers a slickly edited montage of video diaries, video calls, security camera footage, cell phone conversations, home videos and TV news footage to tell its grim story. The year is 2007, the setting North Hollywood. 14 year old Megan (Rachel Quinn) is very pretty and sexually active. Any given conversation between her and a close friend is rife with tales of blow jobs, swallowing and fucking. In the absence of her real father, she lives and argues with her mom; gets high and when you know her well enough will tell you how she was fucked at 9 years old by her step-dad.
By contrast, 13 year old best pal Amy (Amber Perkins) is reserved, virginal, loves her daddy, and is beset by insecurity, fond of teddy bears and anxious to grow up despite her cosy middle class existence. In their own very different ways, both girls are vulnerable to what the mysterious “Josh” can easily exploit – but it happens to be Megan who, initially at least, gets reeled in. Befriending a cute guy initially calling himself Skater Dude online, Megan is charmed by his faux-shyness, compliments and rare displays of sensitivity, all of which make her overlook the sinister convenience of his “broken” web-cam. She goes to meet “Josh” by herself and never returns. What she faces awaits Amy when she does everything she can to locate her best buddy.
Boldly, by his own admission, casting two “cute white girls” in the lead roles and striving for the adolescent frankness of Larry Clarke’s Kids (minus the artistic pretensions and leery sense of exploitation), Goi succeeds in capturing the 21st century teen milieu. A relatively innocuous but still disquieting first half reveals underage characters talking far more explicitly about their love-lives than most regular viewers will be comfortable with. Although nothing dramatic happens beyond Amy being unpleasantly bullied and ostracised, an early-on portrayal of a typical party, in which everyone is either fucked up or getting fucked or both, takes the movie into Nightmare Movie territory for parental audiences long before lives are actually threatened. Quinn and Perkins, convincingly essaying two chalk / cheese characters with an unforced intimacy onscreen together, go a long way to giving the movie its authenticity.
Refusing to simply follow the fairly simplistic formula of the majority of found-footage movies, Goi mixes things up to avoid it feeling like old ground. Before the movie literally descends into darkness, there is even room for gallows humour and satire. The main structure of the film is interrupted for a grimly amusing series of news bulletins complete with faux-sincere testimonies from the school authority figures and peers who (largely) despised Megan until she got herself kidnapped. The TV network’s handling of delicate material is credibly exploitative: “Teen’s Abduction Caught On Tape!” screams one on-screen headline excitedly. The shallow nature of TV news in our age, and its callous manipulation of the intended audience is cannily mocked, as Goi cleverly uses the bulletins to further the narrative. By being plunged into a typically structured broadcast, however, we also have to endure insensitive links (“When we return a spaniel accidentally drives his owner’s car through a window!”) and a notably dire re-enactment of the abduction, staged (with typical insensitivity) on the real location and laughably melodramatic in execution. Anyone who has seen a Crimewatch reconstruction will laugh out loud at the credible ineptitude.
And laugh while you can, for Megan Is Missing, right after this wry interlude, quickly reaches a point of no return. The key turning point in the movie, and perhaps its most scarring images, take the form of a pair of found photos of Megan suffering an infernal torture device – photos “discovered” on a fetish website. Thereafter, we’re on a one-way trip into Hell, vaguely reminiscent of the original The Vanishing with the bleak realisation that one character, in attempting to find out what happened to her friend, looks destined to suffer the same fate. The final 22 minutes of Megan Is Missing purport to be unedited, unaltered footage garnered from Amy’s video-camera, allowing us to experience 22 minutes in Josh’s dungeons, where teenage girls are chained to the wall in their underwear and fed like animals. A harrowing rape, played via a fixed, unflinching shot of the victim’s face, is about as disturbing as movies get : it’s not explicit a la I Spit On Your Grave, but you will feel like you’ve seen more than enough right before the sight of the rapist’s bloody fingers.
If the finale undeniably takes the movie into what many will dismiss as “torture porn” territory, the dubious categorisation seems more redundant in this context than ever : there is no sense of exploitation or excitement to be found in Megan Is Missing. Actual graphic violence is absent; because Goi knows a single image of a girl’s corpse in a barrel is enough to make an audience feel their world is ending. It wraps up with an upsetting eight minute unbroken ground-level fixed shot of a character’s grave painstakingly prepared while she pleads pitifully for her life. The angry, hopeless, helpless feeling that you’re left with would appear to be exactly what the writer-director intended for viewers of Megan Is Missing, a truly nightmarish 21st century horror film.
Versions Available in the US, banned in Austalia, unlikely to get a UK release