Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Craig Zobel’s stark, terrifying based-on-a-true-story shocker Compliance.
“If you don’t think this one is a horror film, stop fooling yourselves”. So begins film critic Scott Weinberg’s review of Compliance, a low-budget (less than $300 grand, estimated) indie from writer-director Craig Zobel (Z For Zachariah) that claims to be based on real events.
The events in question (allegedly numbering more than 70 in total) were the work of a serial phone prankster in the United States, who targeted businesses with the intention of seeing how far he could push employees without being caught. The most famous example was the Mount Washington scam, which took place in a McDonald’s in Kentucky and is, largely, the basis for Compliance.
Watching the movie, it’s difficult to imagine how any of the events contained therein could possibly have happened, but a cursory glance at the facts reveals nothing has been exaggerated here (as noted by a title card at the beginning). Thus, the strength of the flick, and its understated cast is in its simplicity, its reliance on the bare-bones facts of the story.
Working with mostly unknowns, save for the reliably brilliant Pat Healy as the caller and poor, doe-eyed Dreama Walker as his unsuspecting victim, Zobel establishes the premise with minimal fuss. It’s a typically busy Friday night in a fast food restaurant when a police officer calls claiming an employee (Walker’s Becky) has stolen money from a customer.
We know from the outset that strait-laced manager Sandra (Ann O’Dowd) respects authority above all else, so when Healy’s confident voice demands she call him “sir” or “officer” only, she obliges. Likewise, when he explains a strip search is the only course of action, in order to find the missing cash, Becky is left shivering in the nude with nary a second thought.
Healy is actually scarier as a voice than when he’s fully revealed, in all his slimy glory. The intention seems to be to show how normal his character is, thus making it more unsettling that he’s gone to such lengths purely for kicks. But, even just as a voice the man is magnetically charming and ruthlessly pragmatic.
A master manipulator, his so-called Officer Daniels is no knuckle-dragging, basement-dwelling loser. He’s a seemingly upstanding member of society, with a house and a job – possibly even kids, it’s hinted at one stage. He’s not sitting there with his dick in his hand, either. It’s clear these pranks get him off on a cerebral level, which is ultimately more disturbing.
Compliance makes for uncomfortable, powerful viewing. However, in spite of the gravity of the situation (and things do escalate very quickly), and the amount of bare skin on display, it isn’t exploitative. Becky is grossly humiliated, but aside from her naked body being on display, the seriousness of what’s happening to her is sold mostly through her, and other characters’, reactions.
Save for one, stomach-churning, shot of her on her hands and knees, it’s all suggestion. And, as with the best, most clever genre movies, this approach sells the horror of the situation to us more. Indeed, Weinberg is correct in his analysis of the flick as horror. One would be hard pressed to argue this as a straight drama, or a crime thriller. It’s horrifying because it really happened, because real people acted this way.
This isn’t a Strangers-esque true story, it’s factual, which makes it much more memorable. It’s difficult to hate Sandra, as Becky’s boss, because as she notes later on Officer Daniels “had an answer every time”. Why should she question a direct order from above? Her morally murkier fiancee, on the other hand, is fair game–particularly when he seems to be complicit in what’s happening.
Compliance is very purposefully minimalistic. A barely-there, violin-heavy score hums at certain times, but otherwise there are no real artistic flourishes of note. The performances are un-showy, even and naturalistic. Everybody is a believable service industry employee while Officer Daniels is the sicko puppeteer pulling the strings.
Whether or not you believe the dire, so-called statistics, it’s a deeply unsettling and powerful watch as a movie, and a wonderfully dark example of Not Quite Horror.