Director: Branden Kramer
Starring: Ashley Benson, Matt McGorry, Kaili Vernoff
The climactic ten minutes of Branden Kramer’s feature debut are so uncompromisingly traumatic that you’ll be tossing your iPhone in the nearest bin as you leave the theatre. You don’t watch Ratter, nor experience it: you survive it.
Beautifully carried by Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars fame, Kramer’s expansion of his 2012 short film follows Emma; a strikingly beautiful, instantly likable young woman who has moved from Wisconsin to the Big Apple for her studies. Although savvy and switched-on, Emma is unaware that she has become the fixation of an online stalker who taps into her devices and takes control via a Remote Administration Tool (RAT).
This seemingly ever-expanding criminal sphere can do far more damaging things than commit fraud. They are able to listen in to your conversations, know your whereabouts and extract personal data like photos, videos and documents with a few simply clicks. Through a phone, laptop, tablet or desktop, ‘Ratters’ gain a window into your life without ever needing to leave home.
The creative storytelling presented by Kramer makes Ratter an entirely insular filmmaking model. Captured completely via the miscellaneous devices Emma operates, we as the spectator are the voyeurs; leering and lurking undetected across her apartment, during her schooling, whilst she sleeps. Wherever technology is present, we are too. It is a desperately worrying reflection of privacy invasion. Unlike many alternative footage pictures, Kramer fails to ever break from the format, ensuring the continuity remains firmly intact. His vivid, polarising direction speaks volumes of his craft, and for a first attempt to showcase this much artistic license is highly commendable.
Weighted with a lingering, methodical pace, Kramer cranks up the tension with immeasurable malice. As time passes and the oddities of her surroundings begin to take effect, we slowly watch the psychological undoings of Emma as she goes from a vibrant, witty student with a thirst for life, to a breathless, anxiety-smothered wreck. This calculated character development only makes the scenarios feel more harrowing and heartbreaking, and Emma’s world feels even further isolated by the few surrounding and supporting who are consistently trying to rationalise events.
As much as it is an experiment in unshakable terror, Ratter serves as a valuable and important piece too. Kramer’s brilliant dialogue for his leading lady poses poignant questions about cyber crime and the devastating impact it has on a victim’s life, but much like an unjust act, he refuses to offer firm answers. “Why me?” Emma may ponder, but why anyone seems like an appropriate response, or perhaps from the voyeur’s perspective “Because I can?”.
Kramer’s film is never scarier than when the stalker is merely playing games with Emma: getting in her head, forcing her to assess her own sanity. One-off booming door-knocks at in the middle of the night, mysterious parcels arriving, hacking friends’ email and messenger accounts to send false content. Ratter meditates in the menace, often feeling like a gruelling endurance test. This is only furthered by the foreboding tonal pallets, absence of primary soundtrack, and unreliable imagery – jittering and glitching as it buffers.
Throughout Kramer hits us with some sneaky red herrings, each becoming slightly more brazen as the criminal chances a step further. Dread surges through the spectator when the shadows of feet become visible from under the front door, or when Emma returns after a boozy night on the tiles. As previously mentioned, we exit the film after one of the year’s most arresting and gut-punching sequences. So bruising and breathless are these moments that elevated heart-rate and sweaty palms will most certainly occur.
Benson’s experience in roles surrounded by mystery aid her brilliantly here. She is Ratter; appearing in every frame and being entirely convincing across the break-neck 80min runtime. Her emotive and cognitive transitions across each act are truly remarkable, and one sincerely hopes the film gets picked up for distribution in this country so more audiences can see her dynamic work.
Kramer’s debut is an outstanding achievement: an progressive visual nightmare which unearths the hidden horrors we neglect or fail to detect. Ensuring that Emma is imprisoned whether home or away, Ratter’s relentless intensity makes this unforgettable viewing.