Giving the venerable “Gaslight” concept a high-tech spin, Randall Cole’s “388 Arletta Avenue” is a taut, often ingenious thriller that falls short only when it becomes untrue to itself and its central conceit: the 24-7 surveillance of a not-quite-happily married couple by a virtual intruder, whose manipulations and mischief drive the husband to the brink. Thesps Nick Stahl, Devon Sawa and Mia Kirshner bring authenticity to a fairly audacious plotline, and helmer Cole adds a certain flair to what’s becoming a familiar device. Play will be limited, but genre fans will likely lap it up.
James and Amy (Stahl, Kirshner) live comfortably in upscale Toronto; she’s a Ph.D. candidate, he’s an up-and-comer at an advertising firm. What we first see of them is through the lens of a camera, trained on their house, which watches as they leave the home, hide a key in a planter and drive away. The cameraman sees it all, too, and uses the key to plant at least half a dozen cameras in the home. The movie-within-the-movie is thereafter viewed chiefly on a bank of monitors at an mysterious location, the visible action shifting from room to room, and screen to screen, via the unseen hand of the puppet master/fiend.
What begins in confusion — with an unknown CD set up to play on their car stereo — leads to frayed nerves between James and Amy, neither knowing where it came from nor, of course, jumping to the conclusion that someone’s trying to drive them crazy. But matters escalate, to the point that when James finds a goodbye note on the bed, and Amy gone, it’s entirely plausible that she’s simply run away. James, after all, has been cheating on her: In the film’s subtler moments, a woman at the office gives him a begrudging smile; his sister-in law, Katherine (Krista Bridges), greets his phone call with venom — her violent dislike of James eventually leading her to jump to the conclusion he’s killed Amy. Meanwhile, James tries to figure out who would be kidnapping his wife, killing his cat and otherwise monkeying with his life.
A movie with a gimmick almost dares the viewer to find flaws in the process, and there seem to be a few in “388 Arletta Avenue,” even if most of what we see remains faithful to the initial setup: When James seeks out an old classmate, Bill (Sawa), whom he suspects of being his tormentor, all the action takes place in front of a camera the viewer knows has been planted in the car. When the police come to call, the kitchen cams pick up the conversation. How we see James at his workplace isn’t quite as clear, unless the devilish mastermind has infiltrated his office computer (quite possible, given all else that happens). But when James chases a real, physical intruder out of his house one night and takes to the streets in his car, it’s a bit tougher to reconcile how we’re seeing it all, unless Mr. Evil has strung cameras like Christmas lights up and down Arletta Avenue.
It’s a curious psychological game “388 Arletta” plays: Although the p.o.v. is the criminal’s, we should be sympathizing with James, yet we don’t, really. He’s a not particularly charming philanderer, and when he seeks out Bill, it’s ostensibly to apologize — he and others bullied Bill back in school, and the shattered-looking man seems to have suffered long-term consequences. Even as he asks Bill’s forgiveness, he suspects him of being behind his wife’s abduction. So it’s with mixed feelings that one watches James come apart at the seams, and several others along with him.
The movie-through-viewfinder, probably done best in the Spanish horror film “REC” (and to headache-inducing effect elsewhere, like “Cloverfield”) is a novelty that seems both a distraction and a decoy from what might otherwise be just moderately interesting horror constructions, “388 Arletta Avenue” included.
Production values are good, considering that the overall aesthetic is purposefully raggedy.