The 2016 edition of the annual gore-fest or schlock-fest or scream-fest, FrightFest got under way last night at its new digs adjacent to a branch of JD Wetherspoon in London’s glittering Shepherd’s Bush. One of the movies chosen to proudly kick off this year’s festival was Cell, Tod Williams’ adaptation of the Stephen King novel, a movie that appears to have been rattling around in purgatory for the past couple of years (which probably makes it ideal for a horror festival). Snatches of conversation heard at kicking-out time included the eminently downbeat: “well it is a minor King novella, so…” and the even more frank: “the book made a lot more sense”; responses which summed up the general air of disappointment that was obvious even among the relatively forgiving environs of FrightFest.
John Cusack continues in his one man crusade to rid the world of himself, teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson (appearing in his fortieth movie this year) in a threadbare, incoherent and occasionally amusing stab at updating the zombie genre. Cusack, as is the way with King, plays a flawed but fundamentally likeable writer, estranged from his family and battling personal demons, who gets caught up in the end of the world when all mobile phones turn everybody into marauding, bloodthirsty crazies. Teaming up with Jackson, a man with a job as a train driver but no other discernible characteristics, they wander across the countryside in search of Cusack’s wife and son whom he hopes haven’t morphed into shambling shadows of their former selves.
Cell begins with such an unexpected, perhaps even brave (although I doubt it was intentional) example of narrative economy, that five minutes into the thing, you’re convinced you’ve already missed an hour’s worth. From congenial conversation to all-out apocalypse in the time it takes to boil an egg, the opening salvo is genuinely eye-poppingly berserk. It would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact the effects look dreadful and that Cusack has the crestfallen air of a man who has just been invited to fulfil a lifetime of dentist appointments on the same weekend that renews his contents insurance.
Things don’t get a great deal better. The bulk of the movie sees Cusack, Jackson and assorted hangers-on bedding down in bars or boarding schools as hordes of “Phoners” aimlessly seek them out while emitting a kind of pre-broadband dial-up noise from their mouths. There are a couple of scant highlights including a scene in which Cusack and Jackson drive over hundreds of sleeping people in a tanker while listening to the Trololo song, but it all amounts to very little and ends with the sort of slap in the face that makes you want to hurl your hat at the screen.
Still, Eli Roth was supposedly onboard to direct this at one point, so it could have been even worse.
Director: Tod Williams
Writer: Stephen King, Adam Alleca
Stars: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman
Runtime: 98 mins