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CINEMA IN EXTREMIS: Cautionary Tale or Sick Exploitation? The Controversial MEGAN IS MISSING

[Warning: Some screenshots below are quite disturbing and not safe for work.]

There are many movies, across all genres, that have historically generated controversy and public outcry for tackling topics that seem on the surface to be at cross-purposes with the filmmakers’ intent. Often it’s the same old “art or exploitation?” argument that’s hounded certain films for decades — including the collected works of Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier, and films like Pasolini’s SALO — which is now widely considered a classic, despite being banned or censored in several countries.

Art may be in the eye of the beholder… but sometimes it’s a film’s core message that often becomes overshadowed by its headline-grabbing shock value; notorious examples include the made-for-TV documentary SCARED STRAIGHT! and Mel Gibson’s biblical splatter-fest THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

The creators of these films often employ shocking images, concepts and dialogue to drive home a lesson in morality, safety or social conformity — not unlike the often-terrifying public service announcements which often employ terror tactics to frighten kids away from drug use, texting while driving, and other dangerous activities.

One independent film which slipped under the wide-release radar attempted to ride a rising wave of found footage cinema to clobber viewers with a heavy-handed but unforgettably shocking lesson about the dangers of underage partying, casual sex and drug use: Michael Goi’s controversial 2011 feature MEGAN IS MISSING.

I’m still not quite sure if this deeply disturbing film was truly intended as an educational initiative — because I can’t imagine any school administration in the world sitting down a roomful of middle-school students for a required viewing of MEGAN IS MISSING without being immediately deluged with lawsuits from horrified parents.

Regardless, MEGAN IS MISSING received an endorsement from none other than Marc Klaas — father of Polly Klaas, who was abducted and murdered at the age of 12 by Richard Allen Davis in 1993 (Marc went on to found the KlaasKids Foundation, a nonprofit charity to prevent crimes against children). It’s likely this crime, as well as the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in 2002, served as the inspiration for the film itself.

Sure, there’s definitely a life lesson to be learned here… but that would likely be “predators are lurking online, around every corner, and at every party, looking for the chance to kidnap, torture and murder you and all your friends.”

Even worse, the film suggests those same psychotic monsters might even be posing as your so-called friends.

So, basically the film’s primary take-away is this: live out your miserable life in a constant state of crippling terror and paranoia… and don’t even think about venturing onto social media of any kind. Class dismissed.

The plot initially moves at a rather leisurely pace, playing out as a slice-of-life drama about a pair of adolescent girls: 14-year-old Megan Stewart (Amber Perkins), and her best friend, 13-year-old Amy Herman (Rachel Quinn).

If not for its frank dialog and visual depictions of sexual activity, the first act could pass for a creepy millennial version of a vintage ABC AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL about the dangers awaiting teenagers who dare to explore the big, bad, nasty world of adulthood.

Megan and Amy’s friendship is unique, in that Megan is already sexually active and indulges in alcohol and drugs, while the shy and virginal Amy is socially awkward, and hesitant to succumb to her friend’s wild and reckless lifestyle. Much of the film’s first third is constructed from their candid webcam chats, in which they share their deepest, darkest secrets.

Amy lives vicariously through her hard-partying friend’s experiences (which rival the orgiastic antics of Larry Clark’s KIDS), and it seems she’s on the verge of taking part in Megan’s secret life… until Megan begins conversing online with a boy named Josh, who is allegedly a mutual friend.

Amy’s suspicions about Josh — whom Megan has never met in person — are confirmed when an attempted rendezvous between Josh and Megan ends with the girl’s sudden disappearance.

When it seems the authorities have finally written off the already-troubled Megan as a runaway, Amy begins her own investigation into Josh’s background online, recording her findings and explorations on video.

Amy’s curiosity — combined with threats to report the mysterious young man to the police — provokes a sudden horrific response from Josh (not his real name, of course), who turns out to be a sadistic, homicidal pedophile.

From this point, the film parallels the conclusion of THE VANISHING, as Amy learns her best friend’s ultimate fate in the worst possible way; this results in a final act that earned the film its much-deserved controversial reputation — and an intense visceral reaction from any viewers who managed to make it to the end credits.

The film’s final 22 minutes are shown from the perspective of Amy’s own camera, though now operated clumsily by “Josh” — who has built himself an ultra-sleazy, hellish S&M dungeon in a moldy, dirt-floored basement (the exact location is never established), within which we’re forced to watch Amy subjected to all manner of degradation.

These scenes of rape and torture are not graphically depicted on camera, but the mere suggestion of the acts, through closeups and terrifying audio — combined with truly nightmarish images allegedly discovered on a deep web child-porn site — would still place the film outside the purview of even an NC-17 rating, were it not for the film’s alleged “cautionary” theme.

Objectively, I’m still not sure I’ve come to terms yet with Goi’s approach. I don’t share some critics’ objections to the slow, methodical pacing of the first two acts, and I think the main actresses do an effective and convincing job of making their characters sympathetic. I also don’t believe the ending is necessarily employing shock for its own sake… though I think it eventually crosses a line from intense terror to pure, unbridled sadism, and comes dangerously close to wallowing in the very atrocities against which it’s presumably trying to warn us.

I will say that if Goi is aiming for a gut-punching final twist, he’s managed to achieve his goal… I’m just not sure if I’m part of his intended target audience. Further, I’m not exactly certain who that audience is supposed to be.

Regardless of where you stand regarding the moral compass of MEGAN IS MISSING, I’m pretty sure those final 22 minutes are going to leave a scar (even uploading some of these still images from the film made me feel dirty). Even if you consider it a fairly well-made story with a genuinely terrifying climax, I seriously doubt you’ll want to watch it a second time.

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