Thursday, April 5, 2012

Panic Button by Frazer Lee

Based on a recent British horror film of the same name, Panic Button is the kind of excursion that taps into every nuance and trope of modern horror cinema. Thankfully this novelization can be just as harrowing – taking the theme of contemporary social media and hammering home our fears and insecurities concerning the medium until the reader feels frantic with it.

As a reviewer, I’m always looking for something different: uncharted waters to critique; a novel based on a semi-successful film seemed to fit the bill. After the reading experience, I could visit the screen version ... and see how well the author lifted its contents. Much like an excavator will slowly brush away the dirt to reveal a fossil.

Our story is simple: four young people win the trip of a lifetime to New York, courtesy of the world famous social networking site On board their private jet, they are invited to participate in some in-flight entertainment – a new online gaming experience. A unique gaming experience. Trapped at 30,000 feet, they are forced to play for their lives (and the lives of their loved ones) by a mysterious captor who bears the social network insignia. And they are about to learn that having an online profile can have deadly consequences...

Here we go back to my first stanza: this is definitely reminiscent of many horror outings. There's the Saw franchise; we also have films like Cube and the tacit terrors produced by Final Destination, Red Eye, and the original Twilight Zone. But what we also have on offer is the potential for a beautiful character study ... one mined to great effect in films like The Hole (2001), and Hard Candy. The most appealing thing here is the subject matter itself: at its beating heart, Panic Button is a novel about a theme barely touched in cinema: social networking.

Our team is herded. There’s Jo Scott the recovering alcoholic. She’s left her daughter at home in the care of her mother to experience this chance at freedom. Max Nichols - a man as mysterious as his online persona would suggest. Gwen has a ‘hippy chick’ aura but more than a few of her own demons. And rounding out the small cabal is Dave ... a sly and obnoxious joker the others will have to watch like a dormant snake. Then we are lifted into the air with the four toasting their lucky success. But for the next few hours their only companion will be the grinning alligator facade of the All2gethr mascot  ... and it isn’t long before the games begin: a harrowing series of brutal psychological questionnaires that will pit each contestant against the other in a series of dares where the losing price is death. Not only for them, but for those on the ground who mourn their departure.   

While this is not exactly a ground breaking book, Frazer Lee does an excellent job pulling out all the stops when needed. The games preformed by Alligator are subtle yet equally horrific: you’ll keep reading with morbid fascination as each contestant's lives are exposed with brutal honesty. You’ll also see yourself in these characters: seemingly ordinary but each with a plethora of secrets just waiting to be brought to the surface. The real horror, when it arrives, more than competes with anything the original creators of Saw envisioned. And underlying it all, of course, are the social and ethical questions we as a society have come to ask ourselves on a daily basis: what will be the eventual price of social networking? Presently, we live in an age that would have been unthinkable merely decades ago. There are always dues. And the price of this one (when it arrives) could be almost too much to bear.