Messages Deleted is a horror thriller about a screenwriter/ screenwriting professor, Joel Brandt (Matthew Lillard), who finds himself twisted up in a small string of murders when he starts to get mysterious messages from strangers pleading for him to come save them, and telling him that the killer will only spare them if he shows up to where he’s instructed. Sounds interesting enough, right? There’s also a second layer to it: the killings become more and more similar to one of Joel Brandt’s own screenplays. Ah, the plot thickens.
I loved the idea of the film’s protagonist (as we learn in the movie, “hero” is not the appropriate term to use) being a screenwriter. Once the movie began, I (a former film student) fell even more in love with this element, as I immediately found Joel Brandt relatable. He reminded me so very much of my own former writing professor turned writing mentor. So much of his dialogue at the beginning of the film is exactly like things I’ve heard numerous times from my screenwriting mentor and the writers he’s introduced into my realm of knowledge. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Messages Deleted from the screenwriting perspective it so delicately analyzes.
Right off the bat, Matthew Lillard, one of my personal favorite actors, is exceptionably believable as the screenwriter protagonist. His unique brand of intelligence, narcissism, and subtle low self-esteem in his portrayal of Joel Brandt worked well. He immediately charmed me with his opening disdain of movie clichés.
And when we meet him, Joel even mentions the old rule about the inciting incident taking place on page ten. The movie itself follows this rule: Joel gets the phone call from the first victim pleading for help in the first ten minutes of the movie. At the time, though, of course, Joel thinks it’s a prank.
Which brings to a second point about the film. The movie does fall into some of the traps it lays out as far as what not to do when writing/making a movie. And the whole “dismissing things as a prank” is one of them. It’s totally a cliché, and one that is way overused in horror movies. Why do characters never take things seriously? Why do they always think everything is just a prank? Are movie characters just way more cynical than people are even in real life? Or in the movie world, is everyone just an extreme prankster, to the point that no one believes anyone anymore? Maybe I’ll never know, but I do know that in real life if you do get a phone call like that, and you have no proof that it is indeed a prank, you call the police and let them figure the whole thing out. Then at least you know you’ve done your part. It’s that simple. But, no, Joel just dismisses the whole thing as a joke and doesn’t think much of it—until the next day when he comes into contact with the body of the victim in a truly creepy way.
Another element that films like this always rely on to the point of it being borderline cliché, is incompetent cops. I say incompetent because cops, in movies like this, always think they’re so smart; latching onto an idea no matter how much or how little evidence, and seemingly less interested in discovering facts and the truth than they are in proving that their theory is correct. The two cops in this movie are no exception. One of the downsides to this film is how easy it is to get sick of the detectives, knowing that they are just as wrong as all the horror movie cops that came before them.
My favorite screenwriting rule is one that sounds obvious: Don’t write about stupid characters doing stupid things. In his interactions with his students, Joel touches on this rule in not so many words. And yet, this is exactly what the characters in the actual film do. For Joel to be a screenwriter, for all his expertise and typical writer nature, he is also a perfect example of “stupid characters doing stupid things.” You hear or see something crazy or suspicious, you call the police. It’s that simple. But Joel doesn’t do that. He ignores it and then shows up at the first two crime scenes of people who have called him. And this promptly gets him arrested. Then, he does a number of other stupid things, like going to the next crime scene when he receives a phone call at a pay phone from the victim, and not calling the police, but trusting a stranger to do it- after he’s already at the crime scene. Then, when he’s already a suspect, he pulls a knife out of the victim’s back, with his naked hands.
This movie also breaks the rule my own screenwriting professor taught me about always have characters that people are invested in. He taught me that we don’t have to like or love them, and they don’t have to be necessarily good people, but we do have to care about what happens to them. Outside of Matthew Lillard’s character, every other character was either boring and somewhat flat, or extremely annoying. Neither of these things lend themselves to me or anyone else caring about the supporting characters. They are so not worth investing in, that it makes one care that much more about what happens to Joel Brandt, because of the people he has around him.
With all that said, Joel is never not interesting. This may be my love for Matthew Lillard talking (he was one of my adolescent crushes, having adored him since I was able to sneak and watch Scream), but no matter what Joel’s flaws were, it never stopped being possible to be on his side. Matthew Lillard’s vulnerable yet intellectual-to-the-point of-being-a-pretentious-douchebag portrayal of him should make him unlikable, but it never does.
So there it is. While this movie could be and would be entertaining for a watch if there’s nothing else to do, that’s about it. I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise, because it has nothing else to offer besides Matthew Lillard and all his charm and brilliance. So, if you’re as big a fan of him as I am, watch it and enjoy his one-man show. He’s great in it. If you’re not big on him, then don’t bother.