Written and directed by Erik Shapiro (from a short story written by Jack Ketchum)
Style over substance is something that often plagues burgeoning filmmakers. To be fair, it’s a hard line to walk. While you want to make a splash by showing your visual strength, you also have to make sure you’re not distracting from the story you’re trying to tell. Like balancing on a razor’s edge, a little too much here, not enough there, and PFFT! disaster. Unfortunately, that’s the case with Mail Order, written and directed by Eric Shapiro and adapted from a short story written by Jack Ketchum.
The film focuses on Howard (Schall), an analog guy living in a digital world; he doesn’t own a cell phone, doesn’t use the web, and even buys his movies via mail order catalog. However, he’s a bit of a walking contradiction; though living off the high-speed grid, his brain seems to know only two modes: go and go faster. His only moments of calm seems to be the aforementioned mail order movies: non-narrative S&M videos that fall just shy of snuff flicks.
After a manic day of business dealings, he seeks relaxation by popping in a new video that just arrived in the mail. Enraptured, Howard watches as two masked men lug a barely conscious woman into a nondescript room. They throw her onto a plastic sheeted bed, remove her clothes, and as they torture her with butcher knives, Howard notices the woman looks familiar. Does he know her? He plucks a photo album off the shelf and determines the woman is actually an old girlfriend named Greta (Morgan-Moyer). Via flashback, we discover their relationship didn’t end well, though Howard still cared about her.
Concerned by the video, Howard tries to track Greta down. He discovers she went missing a few months ago, and no one has heard from her since. Howard fears the worst. Is the video real? Was she actually killed?
Weeks later Howard sees a woman who looks just like Greta on the street. Is it her? And if it is, what’s up with the video? Why hasn’t she contacted her family? Questions, Howard later discovers, that were better left unasked.
Mail Order has all the pieces for an intriguing short film: source material from a master of the genre, a pair of very good actors, and a director who clearly knows how to make a film. The problem is the film is so hyper-stylized it’s actually hard to watch. You’re never able to get a true comprehension of what you’re seeing, which makes the story difficult to follow, so much so you’re actually kind of anxious for it to be over (I checked the remaining running time twice).
Ultimately, Mail Order should have no problems finding festival placements. The source material is solid, the performances by the two leads are actually very good, and the story is dark enough to intrigue. This is simply a case where a little less would have been so much more, and you can’t help but feel this was a hanging curve ball that could have been knocked out of the park, but the bat cracked and it turned into a double instead.
3 out of 5