Review: ‘Do Not Reply,’ starring Amanda Arcuri and Jackson Rathbone

October 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kerri Medders, Jackson Rathbone, Elise Luthman and Amanda Arcuri in “Do Not Reply” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Do Not Reply”

Directed by Daniel Woltosz and Walter Woltosz

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Do Not Reply” has a predominantly white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl is seduced online into meeting a stranger, who kidnaps her and holds her captive with other teenage girls. 

Culture Audience: “Do Not Reply” will appeal primarily to people who like watching bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation horror films.

Jackson Rathbone in “Do Not Reply” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The filmmakers of “Do Not Reply” must think that Lifetime hasn’t made enough “women in peril” movies where the killer has a thing for targeting cheerleaders. “Do Not Reply” has taken this cliché concept and has sunk it to new levels of badly filmed exploitation. And making things worse is that the pacing of this movie becomes so slow during much of the film that “Do Not Reply” is not only dreadful but it’s also excruciatingly dull. “Do Not Reply” has nudity and cursing in its attempt to be “edgier” than a Lifetime movie, but it uses the same template of any Lifetime movie about a psycho who wants cheerleaders to die.

Lazily written and directed by Walter Woltosz and his son Daniel Woltosz in their feature-film debut, “Do Not Reply” also rips off the same premise of any movie about a teenage girl who’s lured into a dangerous situation by a stranger online. The main character who’s the kidnapping victim in this story is a 17-year-old student in high school named Chelsea (played by Amanda Arcuri), who fits the predictable “good girl” virginal stereotype in horror movies like this one. Chelsea has been chatting online with a guy with the screen name VRCowboy, who claims to also be 17 years old, but anyone with a brain can see that he’s a much older man.

Chelsea has a friend named Mia (played by Ivon Millan), who’s exchanged nude photos of herself with a guy she wants to date named Dylan (played by Curran Walters), who’s also in high school and is a typical pretty boy who’s accustomed to girls having crushes on him. Chelsea is mildly horrified that Mia is so cavalier about sending nude photos to a guy who’s not even her boyfriend.

Chelsea asks Mia if she’s worried about Dylan showing Mia’s nude pics to his friends, and Mia shrugs it off and says she’s thought about it, but she naïvely thinks that Dylan wouldn’t do that. Meanwhile, Mia asks Chelsea if she wants to see the nude photo of Dylan’s penis that he sent to her, and Chelsea immediately says no. And with that, this movie checks off another cliché in stories about a virginal teenage female victim: She has a close friend who’s more “boy crazy” than she is.

Dylan has a close friend named Seth (played by Christian Hutcherson), who’s attracted to Chelsea. When Dylan invites Mia over to his place for a “party” at his house, Mia uses it as an excuse to bring Chelsea along to try and manipulate this situation into a “double date.” The “party” is really just Dylan, Mia, Chelsea and Seth, who all sit on a couch together.

It isn’t long before Dylan and Mia leave the room to go into a bedroom, thereby leaving Chelsea and the Seth together on the couch. Seth makes a pass at Chelsea, who rebuffs his advances. The next day, when Chelsea tells Mia that Seth wanted Chelsea to give him oral sex, Mia’s response is that Chelsea should’ve done it. That tells viewers all they need to know about what kind of “friend” Mia is.

Meanwhile, Chelsea continues to chat with VRCowboy online, and they eventually get to talking on the phone. He tells her that his name is Brad (played by Jackson Rathbone) and they do some heavy flirting. Chelsea lies and tells Brad that she’s a cheerleader, so he asks her to send him a photo of herself in her cheerleader uniform. It just so happens that Chelsea’s snooty older sister Kristina (played by Savannah Kennick) is a cheerleader, who isn’t home at the time, so Chelsea borrows Kristina’s cheerleader uniform and poses for some flirty selfie photos that she sends to Brad.

As for Brad, he never sends her any photos of himself. And apparently, Chelsea never bothers to ask where she can find him on social media. It seems that he contacted her randomly by text and that’s how they “met” online. When Chelsea and Brad start doing video chats, his face is obscured and blurred-out on screen. His excuse is that the camera got damaged when he accidentally dropped his phone, and he hasn’t bothered to get it fixed.

Despite all of these red flags that Brad is a con artist, Chelsea becomes infatuated with Brad, because he says all of the right things to her. Based on the brief interactions that the movie shows Chelsea having with people close to her, it’s easy to see that she feels overshadowed by her popular sister Kristine, and Chelsea wants to experience dating the way that her friend Mia is experiencing dating. Instead of being comfortable with herself, Chelsea wants to be more like them.

These are the type of insecurities that sexual predators pounce on, and Chelsea is the type of victim who does everything that a predator hopes a victim will do. Brad makes arrangements to meet Chelsea in person. At first, he wants her to come over to his house alone, but she’s at least smart enough to say no. However, Chelsea doesn’t agree to go to Brad’s house mostly because she doesn’t drive and she thinks he lives too far away.

Instead, Brad and Chelsea agree to meet at a Halloween party that’s happening at an abandoned warehouse. Chelsea, who doesn’t tell anyone where she’s going, decides to go to the party dressed as a zombie cheerleader, while Brad goes as a zombie football player. This movie is so dumb that when Brad meets Chelsea at the party, he keeps his helmet on the entire time, and not once does she think it’s strange that he won’t show his face, nor does she ask him to take his helmet off. If Chelsea could see Brad’s face, she’d see that he’s definitely not 17. He’s actually in his 30s.

And then, when Brad gives her some fruity alcohol in a bottle, it’s very easy to know what’s going to happen next. The drink is drugged, of course, making it easy for Brad to put Chelsea in his car. Witnesses at the party who see Brad putting Chelsea in his car assume that she’s his drunk date, and he’s being a gentleman who’s giving her a ride.

Chelsea wakes up to find herself kidnapped and locked inside Brad’s house. And she’s got company: Three other girls who are around her age are there for the same reason: to satisfy Brad’s sick fetish for torturing and raping cheerleaders. It turns out that he has a twisted sexual obsession for someone in his past named Sadie, a blonde cheerleader who rejected him.

There are flashbacks to Brad’s encounters with Sadie (played by Nikki Leigh), who was close to Brad for a reason: Sadie was his sister. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal this information, because the only spoiler information for this utterly predictable movie is to reveal who survives and who doesn’t.

Brad has a computer room where he does his online predator activity. The room has a lot of technology, including video monitors for the surveillance cameras that are all over his house. Brad also has a virtual-reality system that comes with an elaborate headset where he watches videos of himself torturing his victims. Brad wants all of his victims to have blonde hair and wear cheerleader outfits, and he forces all of them to be called Sadie.

In addition to Chelsea, the three other kidnapping victims in the house are Meagan (played by Kerri Medders), who is the most brainwashed of the group because she’s convinced that she and Brad are in love; Heather (played by Elise Luthman), who tries to help Chelsea while pretending to obey Brad; and Tina (played by Ashlee Füss), who wants to escape too, but she’s severely injured from a leg wound and is confined to her bed.

Chelsea tries to escape soon after she gains consciousness, but Meagan stops her. Meagan wants to be Brad’s “favorite” so she’s immediately jealous of Chelsea as the “newcomer,” because she sees Chelsea as a potential threat for Brad’s “affections.” Meagan acts like a watchdog for Brad to make sure that the other kidnapping victims don’t try to escape.

Chelsea is a natural brunette, so one of the first things that Meagan tells Chelsea is that she has to dye her hair blonde. “Do Not Reply” is so badly made that instead of a dye job, an obvious, cheap-looking blonde wig is used for Chelsea. Why bother with mentioning a dye job when an unconvincing-looking wig is used instead? Why not just have a blonde wig in Brad’s house as an explanation and be done with it? It’s an example of how this movie insults viewers’ intelligence.

Another thing about the movie that doesn’t make sense is that later in the movie, Chelsea has access to a bottle of prescription medication in Brad’s house. Chelsea and Meagan are in charge of preparing the meals that everyone eats. Chelsea could’ve drugged Brad and Meagan with all that medication, and then found a way to escape by stealing Brad’s keys to the front door. It’s a huge plot hole that’s too big to ignore.

The movie takes a bizarre and dark turn when Chelsea commits a heinous act to impress Brad, in order to convince him that she’s fallen in love with him. It’s in this scene that “Do Not Reply” takes the point of no return, from being semi-suspenseful trash to being just trash. All of the acting is mediocre at best and downright embarrassing at worst. The only cast member who does a consistently adequate performance is Füss as Tina, but Tina is bedridden and doesn’t have much screen time in this horrible film that was obviously made to have young women running around looking terrified in cheerleader costumes.

“Do Not Reply” attempts to make itself look scarier than it really is, by having tacky-looking red lighting in the “torture room,” but it just looks like the back room of a low-rent strip club. And the movie tries to make Brad look like the VR headset version of “Halloween” villain Michael Myers. But because the “Do Not Reply” story is flimsy to begin with, the movie drags out in too many places.

Rathbone’s portrayal of Brad as a psycho villain isn’t convincing enough. Brad doesn’t look very menacing most of the time. Brad just looks constipated.

And at the end of the movie, there’s a statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that states: “The average age of online enticement is 15 years old.” It’s as if the filmmakers tacked on this public-service announcement warning at the end of the movie to try to erase all the female exploitation in the movie. Too late. “Do Not Reply” is irredeemable garbage, and no PSA message at the end of the movie is going to get rid of the stink.

Gravitas Ventures released “Do Not Reply” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 2, 2020.