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"Forget Me Not": When Low Budget Films Do Teen Horror With Panache

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Tyler Oliver’s Forget Me Not has a tricky combination of ruthlessness and sentimentality. This 2010 release bears some influence from the late XX and early XXI Century wave of Japanese classic horror films. Or rather, the Hollywood remakes that aimed to duplicate their vibe with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Fresh out of graduation, some friends plan a weekend getaway to start their last summer as free-spirited high schoolers. Sandy (Carly Schroeder) and Eli (Cody Linley) are well-to-do brothers on a fast track to Stanford. She is in a relationship with star quarterback Jake (Micah Alberti), whose saucy sister Alex (Jillian Murray) goes out with TJ (Sean Wing). Extra drama comes with a love triangle that includes annoying Alpha-bro Chad (Zachary Abel), the innocent Layla (Chloe Bridges), and blonde temptress Hanna (Brie Gabrielle). No horror movie worth its salt would miss the chance to bring a couple of veterans to play. Here, you get Christopher Atkins (The Blue Lagoon, 1980) as Sandy and Eli’s father and Barbara Bain (from the TV series “Mission: Impossible” and “Space: 1999”) as a no-nonsense nun.

A series of flashbacks establish the backstory: in childhood, Sandy befriends the little orphan Alice. She is needy and clingy and does not fit in with the rest of the gang. Her favorite game is to play a convoluted version of hide and seek in the neighboring cemetery. She suffers an obsession with "not being forgotten," which becomes a foregone conclusion. There is no sight of her in Sandy's busy social life. At least, until the rowdy teens go in the dead of night to the cemetery to play "the ghost" one last time, for old-time's sake. There, an unknown girl (Brittany Renee Finamore) joins the game and throws herself down a ravine minutes later in front of a horrified Sandy.

The police come, but none of the players remember the suicidal girl. The search party does not find a body. The kids keep their plans, but as a horrible wraith takes them down individually, the survivors seem to lose every memory of the casualties' existence. Only Sandy remembers everything. Each victim returns to become part of a scary squad of vengeful, screaming ghouls. In a welcome departure, most killings happen in full daylight, making them somewhat more disturbing.

The horror of not being invited to the party

Technical virtue and aesthetic cliches make Forget Me Not a mixed bag. Childhood flashbacks get a hazy filter, the digital equivalent of splotching Vaseline on the camera lens - with a twinkly musical score to match. This is how a low budget movies show their cards. On the other hand, you get a bravura sequence at a bawdy graduation party, staged as a single-shot scene that introduces the main characters. It is so good because it does not call attention to itself.

Back in the dramatic front, there is true pathos in Sandy’s desperation as the memory-erasing conceit takes hold of everybody around her. Luckily, there is no attempt to explain it, which makes the curse more unsettling. If anything, this is the one lesson the filmmakers took from their Japanese masters. I recently caught up with Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001). While the American exercise in horror is less elegant, a similar feeling of despair rises to the surface occasionally. The contrast with American hedonistic youth culture adds a particular brand of horror.

Once the frightful demons begin to take down the teens, Forget Me Not adopts the familiar episodic structure of killings by turns, all the way to the inevitable showdown between the final girl and her foe. There is an intentionally cartoonish look to the wraiths - each murdered teen comes back as a monster to haunt the survivors - but the jerky way they move and the screeching sound effects they emanate as language work together to make them adequately nightmarish.

Once the movie ties the narrative knots, some bewildering choices call attention to themselves. The ghoul that represents Angela looks like Freddy Krueger’s girlfriend, although the defilement of her body in the real world has nothing to do with fire. Spoiler alert: Angela lies in a coma but looks as beautiful as a supermodel at rest. Maybe the idea is to make her body look as frightful as her pathological fear of being forgotten.

"Teenage horniness is not a crime"

In the immortal words of Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006), "Teenage horniness is not a crime." In Forget Me Not, all the teens are joyful horn dogs and sluts, but refreshingly, the transgressions that make them worthy of cosmic punishment are not sexual but ethical. For once, it is OK to be sexually active. Or at least, it does not make you worthy of death by machete. The boys do not look a day over thirty, except putative virgin Eli. All the girls are sensual and forthcoming, even Sandy, a final girl with skeletons, in the closet. The cast is full of Disney channel refugees, including the now notorious Bella Thorne as little Angela, a mysterious orphan at the heart of the metaphysical horror twist.

Forget Me Not owes a lot to Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976) and Happy Birthday To Me (J. Lee Thompson, 1981), with their emphasis on social ostracism as a fountain of murderous anger. Sandy’s social circle is mixed. While she and Eli are visibly privileged, Jake and Alex are proletariat sons of a cop. There is no Ivy League on the horizon for TJ, who happily is set for a technical career - alas, that workshop will be his doom. However, Angela remains at the bottom of the social ladder as an orphan. Perhaps the silliest choice in the movie is to make her reside at a convent. It is positively Dickensian. I am not sure social services allow for such a thing.

Director Tyler Oliver and co-writer Jamison Stern hint at the horror of inequity in the title sequence. We alternate shots of adults Sandy and Angela getting ready to face the day: dressing up and combing their hair. They are, essentially, the same. But Angela is in a coma, and Sandy goes on living her charmed life. How things came up like this lies at the crux of Forget Me Not. The revelation becomes the outcome of the film. It brings more questions than answers, but we have to take the silliness with the gruesomeness in an indie horror exercise with its creepy charms.

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