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Nastiness in horror movies is like a seasoning: essential for flavor, though potentially overwhelming, especially when not mixed in well. Most contemporary horror movies should be nastier, but not every horror filmmaker should posture like a misanthrope. It doesn’t really help the makers of “15 Cameras,” an unappealing horror movie about a pair of millennial homeowners turned leering voyeurs.
“15 Cameras” follows the lamentable “14 Cameras” and its slightly weaker predecessor, “13 Cameras.” All three movies try to stoke anxieties related to surveillance—tiny cameras, they’re everywhere!—and, in “15 Cameras,” complicity, since all three movies take place in houses that are being filmed with closed-circuit cameras by creepy landlord Gerald (Neville Archambault). Gerald’s now presumed dead—and in real life, Archambault died last year—but at least one of his properties still has several hidden cameras inside the walls and fixtures.
Now Gerald (James Babson) is known as “The Slumlord,” an urban legend, and one of his duplex houses has been heedlessly snapped up—and at a steep discount—by true crime obsessive Sky (Angela Wong Carbone) and her squeamish boyfriend Cam (Will Madden). You might think that Madden’s thuddingly literal character name bodes well for an (intentionally) funny horror movie about the revealing effect of technology on paranoid, weak-willed young people. You would be totally wrong, perhaps in surprising ways.
For starters, “15 Cameras” lacks the specificity to be either good as satire or an atmospheric mood piece. Both Sky and Cam behave in ways that suggest their creators can’t stand them, or really, can’t stand what they vaguely represent. That palpable disdain jumps out in an early scene where see Sky and Cam make out while watching an inexpertly parodied true-crime series called “The Slumlord Tapes,” which features an arch voiceover narration that might have made more sense in an amateurish YouTube video. (ex: “Her boyfriend Marc, deceased, in the next room…”)
Cam objects to how distracted Sky apparently is, and while this could be the start of a genuinely hilarious and well-observed scene, it’s really an excuse to (lightly) incriminate Sky, who’s otherwise barely a supporting character in “15 Cameras.” Because when Cam balks about Sky’s inattention, she reflexively pouts, “That’s a little unfair,” with hard stresses on “little” and “fair.” Using this take/line reading in an establishing scene is the worst kind of revealing. Madden is not exempt from this sort of broad-brush caricaturing either, like when he acknowledges his new home’s shady past by shrugging, “That’s how you get a place for half the market value,” without a sheepish smile or a trace of irony.
Most of “15 Cameras” follows Cam as he discovers a nest of hidden cameras and then proceeds to spy on Amber and Wren (Hannah McKechnie and Shirley Chen), the two attractive college seniors subletting the house’s lower half. You can tell that Cam’s lecherousness is supposed to be funny in a ham-fisted can-you-believe-this-guy kind of way, given Madden’s exaggerated, painfully awkward smile, like when he shakes hands with his new tenants in a dialogue-free montage, overscored by classical music.
Most of the humor in “15 Cameras” concerns Cam and his desperate-to-please attempts at using the Slumlord’s cameras to get into Amber and Wren’s pants. A lot of wan cringe humor—oh wow, he sent a dick pic—and over-enunciated placeholder dialogue suggests that the filmmakers aren’t just pandering to low-brow tastes but also trying hard to provoke their viewers. Just look at these young hypocrites, so anxious about their privilege but also acting powerless to do anything about it. (“You guys are /serious/ landlords now!”) You should also look at how often and conspicuously Sky munches popcorn while glued to her favorite true-crime show. (She can’t even put the stuff down when she’s inevitably confronted in her own home). Or check out Sky’s sister Carolyn (Hilty Bowen), who instantly subscribes to the social media feed of one of the Slumlord’s victims even as she tut-tuts about how little privacy that victim has gotten following the release of “The Slumlord Tapes.” There’s no buildup or development to these pseudo-satirical asides—that’s it, that’s the movie’s only gag.
Madden’s performance is already wearying, but the fact that his wispy character is supposed to carry the bulk of the movie’s dramatic weight is even more exhausting. How is so much of “15 Cameras” about one cartoonishly weak man and his embarrassing descent into techno-enabled prurience? So much time and effort is wasted on skewering Cam, and in the most glaring, monotonous ways, that it soon becomes apparent that the real problem here isn’t a matter of viciousness as much as focus and imagination. Simmering in a litany of contrived, one-note discontents, “15 Cameras” challenges viewers to tsk-tsk a group of direfully sketchy characters. Prefab edginess has rarely been this easy to dismiss.
Now available on demand and in select theaters.