Don’t Hang Up (on Amazon Prime now) begins with a woman receiving a phone call in the middle of the night, ostensibly from a police officer who tells her that there’s a man in her house who has kidnapped her daughter. She is warned to stay put while police enter the house to rescue her daughter, but she is terrified and tosses her phone away; as she runs out of her bedroom to save her daughter, we hear the voice on the other end of the phone say, “You’ve been PRANKED!”
It turns out, our main characters are a group of viral-video pranksters, teenagers who make and upload videos of themselves crank-calling people in increasingly cruel ways. Their videos receive millions of views, along with comments that range from “HA!” to “How is that funny?” to “I’ll prank your mum.” A slick opening montage shows the boys clowning around in that peculiar straight-white-boy-on-the-internet way, uploading viral videos of each other in the bathroom and catching each other naked in bed. Ha, ha, so hetero, bro!
We’re meant to believe their videos are hugely popular, to the point where people watch them around the table at parties and in restaurants.
One evening some time after the opening prank, Sam (Gregg Sulkin) is sitting at home, listening to sad Ed Sheeran songs and scrolling morosely through his girlfriend’s Facebook. Er, excuse me, her Frendz.com profile. His friend Brady (Garrett Clayton) stops by with a camera and a willingness to degrade strangers in exchange for online fame, so the boys soon find themselves drinking and dialing. Their pranks run the gamut from ordering a pizza in someone else’s name, to telling someone his wife has died in a traffic accident. Such lulz, am i rite?
Soon, though, they find themselves on the other end of the line, receiving calls from a mysterious “Mr. Lee” who seems to know far too much about them. Mr. Lee, it turns out, has captured Brady’s parents, and he plans to lead the boys through a twisted game to teach them a lesson about how their actions affect other people. And he has one simple instruction for the boys: Don’t hang up. So, of course they do. And then people start to die.
While the scares in Don’t Hang Up are rather routine — loud bumps down darkened hallways, surprise figures standing silently in doorways, sudden and unexpected cuts to power, etc — the film’s thematic material does feel timely, especially now. (While the film was made in 2016, it wasn’t released in the US until last year, and it just hit Amazon Prime this weekend, where it will presumably find its biggest audience yet).
On the last day of 2017, YouTube vlogger Logan Paul uploaded a video of himself in the Aokigahara forest in Japan, also known as the “suicide forest” due to the abnormally high number of people who go into the woods to end their lives. Paul and his crew of buffoons came across the body of a man hanging from a tree, and they proceeded to laugh and make jokes while filming the man. Viewers were understandably outraged; the video was pulled from the site, and YouTube has since kicked Paul out of its “Preferred” creator program, meaning he’s no longer able to monetize his video views.
Slasher movies often function as morality tales. Don’t sneak off into the woods to have sex when you should be watching your campers, or else you’ll die. Don’t sneak off and have sex when you should be babysitting, or else you’ll die. Don’t hit someone with your car and leave them for dead, or else you’ll die. Don’t Hang Up is a slasher movie for the Logan Paul generation: Don’t act like an asshole online, or else… you get the idea.
The casting of Garrett Clayton as Brady provides the movie with a sharper focus than just “don’t prank people online.” Clayton — who famously won’t say whether or not he is gay , despite several of his most prominent roles being gay men— has made somewhat of a name for himself by choosing roles through which he examines masculinity as performance. His biggest breakout was as Tanner in the Disney Channel Original Movies Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2; his character is a parody of wholesome, straight white surfer dudes from the 1960s, and, especially in the sequel, where Tanner becomes a “real boy,” he investigates what, exactly, it means to act like a man. He played a similar role in NBC’s production of Hairspray Live!, acting as Link Larkin, the wholesome TV heartthrob willing to buck convention by falling in love with a big girl and letting black and white people dance together, in contrast with his studio-groomed image.
And, of course, Clayton played gay porn star Brent Corrigan in 2016’s seedy thriller King Cobra, a “based-on-a-true-story” film about a rivalry between gay porn studios that led to murder. Corrigan’s All-American boy-next-door-with-a-secret image was part of his appeal, and Clayton captured his baseball-cap-and-fitted-shirt persona well in that film.
His character in Don’t Hang Up seems cut from the same cloth, image-wise; his fitted cap remains firmly on his head backwards throughout most of the film, giving him a certain sort of swagger that seems entirely performative. Throughout the entire film, his jokes with Sam are of a sexual nature; when Sam calls Brady a dick, Brady says that’s right, and Sam’s a pussy, which is why they go so well together. There’s a montage at the beginning of the night where they film each other making prank calls, spinning the phone like a game of spin-the-bottle, and there’s a certain kind of voyeuristic, pornographic energy in the way they film each other’s lips, each other’s muscles, each other humping the air in front of the phone, explicitly marking the prank-calling as a kind of twisted expression of sexuality.
It’s easy enough to read Brady’s over-performance of “bro” as a kind of displaced homosexual attraction for his friend; see, for example, the scene where they compare weapon sizes when investigating a threatening knock at the door. (There’s a girl at the door, and the tension between them evaporates… for a time.)
So, while Don’t Hang Up’s horror genre beats are not particularly original, its “prank videos are dumb and harmful” message is more nuanced than may be immediately apparent. The movie isn’t just saying that millennials do dumb things on video for attention; it’s specifically condemning the culture of toxic, white, bro-masculinity, performed to the adoration of millions online. It’s a message that may seem pat but apparently still needs to be said, as the Logan Paul controversy from earlier this month indicates. Paul himself, with his wavy blonde hair and comically oversized jaw, seems as much a parody of straight white masculinity as Garrett Clayton here; the difference is, one inexplicably has the attention of millions of teenagers around the country. Talk about horror.
DON’T HANG UP is a slick, gripping, thoroughly familiar slasher for the Logan Paul generation was originally published in Everything’s Interesting on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.