From the opening scene of Popcorn Frights selection Don’t Look Away, a mounting sense of creeping dread seeps into the film’s DNA. Being relentlessly pursued by either the unknown or the strange and unusual have been a tale as old as time in the horror genre—co-writer/director Michael Bafaro continues this tradition, albeit with a surprising amount of tension and restraint. This time, dumb teens are not being stalked by masked killers, nor random evil that chameleons itself as other people. Rather, a hollow-eyed nude male mannequin pops up at random to commit violent murder. Those will doll phobias need not apply: indie horror chiller Don’t Look Away has some imagery destined to haunt one’s nightmares.
After accidentally killing a trucker with her car during the film’s opening, Frankie (Kelly Bastard) remains haunted by this traumatic event. What sticks in her mind most strongly was the figure she saw in her rearview mirror only seconds after: a mannequin that seemed to be grinning back at her. How can Frankie transition back to concentrating on her LSATs with this strange mannequin watching her? Her obnoxious, super-jealous boyfriend Steve (Colm Hill) refuses to believe Frankie could be telling the truth at all.
Frankie reluctantly embraces going out with friends to get her mind off things, but even at the club, the mannequin lurks. She turns to Jonah (Michael Mitton) for help, but Steve does not take kindly to a new man in Frankie’s life. As with Alex Browning in Final Destination, Frankie suspiciously keeps ending up at crime scenes with dead bodies and answers to questions that do not paint her in the kindest light. Bafaro builds an atmosphere that constantly leaves the viewer on edge—one never knows when or where the mannequin will show up next. Curiously enough, we do not see the figure in action. They are only allowed to move if eyes are not on them, giving ultimate meaning to the title Don’t Look Away. Instead of brutal clashes, we get to see the aftermath of several gnarly kills, each more vicious than the last.
Don’t Look Away owes a lot to It Follows, as well as the movies of John Carpenter. At every turn, the stylish score from composers Matt Dauncey and Phil Western and impressive cinematography from Athan Merrick emulate the greats while crafting a twisted new world of their own. I spotted a split diopter scene, and at one point Carrie’s “they’re all gonna laugh at you” gets dropped into a hallucinatory club sequence. The movie never overexplains, understanding that the phrase “less is more” adds to the horror of it all. Don’t Look Away may not be perfect, but I would love to see an entire franchise built around a non-speaking mannequin that spreads faster than the cursed videotape of The Ring. Please return to sender—this mannequin is more dangerous than it appears.
Don’t Look Away screened at 2023’s Popcorn Frights Film Festival.