You can be excused if you’re confused about the title of this film; there are over 100 movies on IMDb with the name Don’t Look Back! Apparently it’s a very popular name for a movie. Who knew?
This 2020 film is a very contemporary horror tapped into the “Karen”-in-the-park bystander zeitgeist. It revolves around a group of people who witness an assault in New York City’s Central Park but don’t do anything about it, just look away, walk away, stand and watch or even record it with their smartphones. Not a good samaritan in the bunch. When some of these witnesses start to die, young mom Caitlin Kramer (Kourtney Bell) tries to discover the truth behind the dangerous situation before she too ends up a casualty of her ostensibly poor life decision.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a variation on the sly and witty Final Destination horror film series, there’s a reason for that: those films were all written by Jeffrey Reddick, who also wrote and directed Don’t Look Back. Based on a 2014 short film called Good Samaritan the film has a solid premise: What if you stood by while someone was beaten or murdered instead of intervening and there was a karmic cost to this all-too-common human decision?
But let’s consider the storyline itself. The film starts with Caitlin (Bell) traumatized when a brutal home invasion leaves her father dead at her feet. Nine months later she’s afraid to leave the house and lives in constant fear of the unknown. Her supportive boyfriend Josh (Skyler Hart) convinces her that leaving the house and starting to get out is the path to mental health and, wouldn’t ya know it, she heads to the park just to witness Douglas Helton (Dean J. West) murdered by a mysterious hoodie-wearing thug in front of her. Like the various other bystanders around her, Caitlin does nothing to stop the crime, or even call the police.
The news media pick up on the story and soon the group of unidentified bystanders are known as “the bad samaritans”. The murder victim’s brother appears, identifies the bystanders from the day of the murder and reads their names on national TV. Caitlin and the others are shunned and reviled, yelled at by strangers and worse. Basically it reaffirms that Caitlin should never have left her apartment in the first place, whatever Josh said. Then the witness who filmed the murder falls to his death out his apartment window, there’s an ominous black crow that keeps showing up and Caitlin swears she sees a mysterious figure in the window late one night. Is karma coming for the group? Is Caitlin going to pay the ultimate price for her poor decision?
There is an increasing level of tension as the film proceeds and the witnesses keep interacting with with each other, with the brother who angrily outed them and especially Caitlin with the initially sympathetic but ultimately suspicious Police Detective Boyd (Jeremy Holm). The problem is that none of the characters are particularly interesting so like every other film, it suffers by having the audience unable to identify with the protagonist. In a word, you don’t really care if the “bad samaritans” get their karmic comeuppance or not.
Worse is that the entire film feels heavy and ponderous. I really enjoyed the entire Final Destination series, with its terrific balance of peril and crazy, Rube Goldberg-esque deaths (some of which will stick with you for years, they’re darn ingenious). It’s a tricky balance to have a story that’s fun, entertaining and still sufficiently horrific that it offers the occasional shot of adrenalin for the viewer too. It’s not a good horror film if you aren’t yellow at the protagonist at least once not to go in the room, answer the phone, check out the basement or head to the outhouse during the lightning storm!
Instead of that, writer/director Jeffrey Reddick offers up a pivotal event that is already far more heavy than anything that triggers the action in any of the five Final Destination films (note: Reddick wrote all but Final Destination 4, according to IMDb). There’s a psychic cost to the viewer watching a man beaten to death by an assailant, even without the lack of a good samaritan stepping in to change things. While most of us might have a similar response of turning away, walking away or just watching as a voyeur, that’s just a questionable launching point for a horror movie that seeks to have us identify with the group of witnesses so we can actually care when they are in mortal peril.
There’s also the angle of cinemagoer as voyeur too, as brilliantly exploited in the marvelous Rear Window (and so many other films). That level of sophistication in the storytelling is beyond what Reddick offers, making me want to see how a more seasoned director like Jordan Peele might have tackled a film with this basic premise. As is, I can’t recommend Don’t Look Back even to the most hardcore horror fans. Go re-watch one of the Final Destination series instead; it’ll be time better spent.