While the 2012 horror anthology V/H/S may be uneven overall, there can be little doubt that “Amateur Night,” the segment written and directed by David Bruckner, is one of the highlights of the film. The found footage short about a group of dudebros who pick up an odd girl (Hannah Fierman) who turns out to be more than they expected, is funny and scary in the best EC Comics tradition. Because it works so beautifully as a self-contained short, it also doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate to be adapted into a full feature film. Enter director Gregg Bishop and his new movie, Siren.
Using the same basic premise as its jumping-off point—a group of guys get more than they bargained for when they cross paths with the title character—Siren inverts the dynamics of the original short by telling the story of more or less nice guys who get in over their heads when they try acting like d-bags for one night and are made to pay for it. If “Amateur Night” was about the male fear of women, Siren is about the illusion of control.
Chase Williamson (from John Dies at the End and Beyond the Gates) stars as Jonah, the happily engaged groom-to-be of lovely Eva (Lindsey Garrett). For his bachelor party, Jonah submits to the plans of his best man/brother, the obnoxious Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan), who takes Jonah and his two closest friends (Hayes Mercure and Randy McDowell) out for a night of debauchery. When Mac’s plans turn out to be busts, the group is approached by a stranger who tells them of a mysterious location where their dreams will come true. Too tempted to resist, they end up in the establishment owned and operated by Mr. Nyx (The Signal’s Justin Welborn), where they discover the titular Siren (Fierman reprising her role) locked in a room. Determined to do the right thing, Jonah decides to set her free… and that’s when all hell breaks loose.
While it began its life as a short, the dynamic reversals of Siren help give the adaptation its own identity. It would have been impossible to sustain an entire movie with the awful characters of V/H/S as its protagonists; by making them sympathetic, we’re able to identify with them and invest in their survival rather than root for them to be deservedly slaughtered by an angry monster.
The lead performance by Chase Williamson goes a long way towards making this approach successful; though he’s best known for playing lovable messes, here he’s square and anxious, but basically decent, attempting to balance doing the right thing with not screwing up the good thing he has going in his regular life. In comparison to other performances he’s given (including the upcoming Beyond the Gates), it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor.
While all of her most iconic moments from V/H/S have been carried over here (including the famous “split face” shot and her delivery of “I like you…”), Hannah Fierman takes advantage of Lily’s extra screen time and displays new shades of the lovesick creature. If “Amateur Night” held a ton of promise for the character, Siren helps turn her into one of the great modern movie monsters.
Finding enough story to tell might have been the biggest challenge faced by director Bishop and screenwriters Luke Piotrowski and Ben Collins when adapting “Amateur Night” to a feature-length film. The short’s premise is perfect for its length and scope, but simply padding those events to 90 minutes would quickly grow tedious. The solution they’ve found for Siren involves more backstory for Fierman’s character (not too much, however; rest assured that this is not a midi-chlorian situation) and the creation of new settings—primarily the sex club teeming with strange new characters, like a bartender (Brittany S. Hall) who serves drinks containing leeches imbued with human memories, or any number of mysteries barely glimpsed behind the club’s closed doors. Piotrowski and Collins have cited Clive Barker and Nightbreed as major influences on their screenplay, and it shows; instead of making a movie about just one monster, Siren welcomes us to an entire world of monsters. That most of them are hinted at is more a function of the budget than it is a deliberate tease for a sequel, but at least the potential is there.
Similar to his breakout 2008 film, Dance of the Dead, Bishop leans heavily on horror comedy during the first half of Siren; the supporting characters are somewhat broad and the setup is akin to that of a raunchy comedy like The Hangover. This isn’t by mistake. Not only does Bishop recognize that the quickest way to get the audience to like a group of characters is to laugh with them, but he also uses the horror genre to comment on the “guy comedy” that the movie starts out being, in which the rules are typically defined by the male characters.
The same structure goes for the first half of Siren, until the men slowly realize that their attempts to exert control over women—whether it’s Justin Welborn’s incredibly entertaining Nyx keeping siren Lily prisoner, or Jonah’s attempt to play the white knight—are ephemeral at best. Despite what every male character in the movie seems to think, it is every female character in Siren that is really calling the shots. As that illusion of control fades away, the film transitions from a typical “bro comedy” into something more intense, violent, and horrific. It’s not a total From Dusk Till Dawn gearshift movie because it introduces itself as a horror film in its opening scene, but Bishop seems to enjoy reeling us into one kind of film before switching things up and going full-on monster bash.
The way that Siren really embraces being an old-school monster movie is probably my favorite thing about it. Lily is a great creation; like Frankenstein’s monster, she is both sympathetic and scary, and both Bishop and Hannah Fierman do their best to strike the right balance between the two. Sure, the effects are sometimes visibly cheap and the scope outpaces the budget (a common problem with Chiller Films), but creativity to the supernatural elements and good performances ensure that Siren’s shortcomings are easily overlooked. There are so many ways that a feature-length adaptation of “Amateur Night” could have gone wrong. It’s a testament to the work of everyone involved that Siren turns out to be this much fun.
Movie Score: 3/5