Finding only a few moments of intriguing genre pleasure, Mockingbird is bookended by two of the biggest thematic bombshells you can fathom. Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) opens his film by throwing a monumental haymaker, and closes with a punishing uppercut – yet everything in-between strikes with the impact of a pillow-wielding-kindergartener. After staring out with an aggressive “BANG,” we’re treated to a flaccid letdown from the year 1995, with visual aesthetics to match. Copying V/H/S‘ physical delivery, Mockingbird is a blast from a past without high definition cameras, mirroring the skill and grace of your Grandma’s home video collection. Mockingbirds got their name for deceptively mimicking the songs of their avian brethren, much like how Bertino’s aptly titled film refuses to distinguish itself in any unique manner except for red balloons and an all-too-anxious clown.
Once the cameras start rolling, we learn that a sinister game is afoot. We’re introduced to three groups of people – The Family, The Woman, and The Clown – who all think they’ve won a brand new video camera from some type of giveaway. They all excitedly play around with their new toys, until discovering the machines never power down. This is where a group of outside onlookers reveal themselves, introducing a horrific game that could end in death if simple rules aren’t followed. It’s a simple case of “play along and you’ll be fine,” except the family is playing for the safety of their daughters. We know all the characters will inevitably meet, but the inevitable “how” doesn’t become obvious until later – which might already be too late.
Established as a cut-together game show of sorts, Mockingbird eliminates any appearance of legal enforcement since the baddies presumably edited all the remaining footage. From this hint we can immediately start determining how the contest may conclude, a situational assessment that Bertino all-but confirms by telegraphing plot-points hours before they happen (at least it felt like hours). The event isn’t as much a mystery as it is a futile demonstration of inexcusably bland horror, relying on floating red balloons to liven things up a bit. The whole movie feels like a bloated segment from the original V/H/S, crudely banking off the nostalgia of 90s technology to create a vapid thriller whose biggest scares come from a friggin’ jack in the box popping open.
That, or it’s one super-long deleted scene from Nena’s 99 Luftballons music video – whichever sounds less terrifying.
The horror of Mockingbird relies completely on claustrophobic settings and utter darkness, as The Woman and The Family find themselves trapped in their own houses. The invaders outside bang on the door a bit and slam windows to reassure their victims something nasty waits outside, but aside from an arm reaching in and a few cheekily-placed mannequins, there isn’t a single valid scare worth your Halloween cash. I’m impressed that Bertino filled an entire house with red balloons, like a thick jungle of air-filled decorations, but moments of zero visibility provide the ONLY tension found throughout Mockingbird, and those moments all go on without capitalization. We’re supposed to feel impending dread and psychological horror when realizing someone actually orchestrated this sick game, but the dull, plodding adventure meanders along at the same lifeless pace that so many found footage horror films have already achieved.
Bertino’s game is played by three horrendously typical characters who are nothing but sub-genre carbon-copies, along with an overzealous jester played by Barak Hardley. The Family and The Woman aren’t worth discussing, because it’s Barak’s character Leonard who both steals and sinks the show through a confusing excitement meant to highlight his foolish wishes. As Leonard’s night becomes stranger with each task he’s given, his excitement never wavers while following an obviously doomed path. The unsuccessful loner is too busy fantasizing about how all the ladies are going to love his clown makeup and how making a fool of himself is going to turn his life around, suckered in like so many hopeful middle-class folk dreaming of that one life-altering experience. It’s a shame his wide-eyed views turn from comedic to overbearing with each passing second, as Leonard’s blind faith becomes an annoying deterrent with a fate so obviously played out before our very eyes.
Mockingbird goes down as a lackluster follow-up when considering how successful The Strangers remains as a horror mainstay, proving that lightning doesn’t always strike twice. Only those suffering from Globophobia (fear of balloons) and/or Erythrophobia (fear of the color red) are advised to pop on this playful debacle for a true Halloween scare, leaving the rest of us in better hands searching for something more than an outreached arm or a loud window-pound. Bertino’s final reveal is a bit of gold, but it’s an exclamation point on a sentence comprised of garbled nonsense and uninteresting prose unable to deliver anything worth such an intriguing finale. Bertino’s devilish game is nothing but a bland, uninspired, repetitive effort that’s a far better concept then project.
Mockingbird plays like an over-bloated V/H/S anthology segment that wastes a jolting start on generic, recycled "found footage" tropes seen a billion times before.