“Ratter” is a found footage movie written and directed by Branden Kramer. The film follows Emma (Ashley Benson), a student who recently moved away from her family and friends to attend graduate school in New York City. Ratter is shot entirely from the perspective of three video cameras – the webcam on Emma’s computer, the front and rear facing cameras in her smartphone, and the motion detecting camera attached to the video game console in her new apartment.
The film opens with a computer monitor displaying a video feed from a “remote access tool” or RAT, quickly establishing that we are watching Emma through the eyes of someone (the eponymous “Ratter”) who has hacked into her devices to spy on her. Through the stalker’s illicit video feeds, we observe Emma settling into her new life in Brooklyn. She video chats with her parents, takes photos and selfies while exploring the city, and exercises in front of her TV. All the while, Emma is completely oblivious to the fact that these seemingly innocuous cameras are betraying her every move to an unknown stalker.
Soon thereafter, Emma meets Michael (Matt McGorry) who becomes a love interest, and Nicole (Rebecca Naomi Jones) a friend and confidant. Through conversations with Nicole, we learn that when Emma left her spurned ex-boyfriend Alex (voiced by Michael William Freeman) shortly before moving to New York City.
As the story progresses, Emma feels that something is not quite right. She receives silent phone calls from a blocked number, mysterious packages show up at her apartment, and she suspects someone is tampering with her social media accounts.
Ratter documents Emma’s slow descent into paranoia as she is left to ponder the identity and motives of the unknown stalker. Who is this sinister person? What are his intentions? And what lengths is he willing to go to get close to Emma?
Found Footage Filming Reason
The filming reason in Ratter is arguably the movie’s defining feature, and where the film derives its namesake. “Ratting” is the act of breaking into and taking control of a remote computer system, which includes gaining access to its cameras. In the case of Ratter, the cameras in Emma’s smartphone, laptop, and game console are compromised.
Ratter is presented through the eyes of Emma’s virtual stalker, who manipulates the video feeds from her devices for his own nefarious purposes. One thing is made abundantly clear from the stalker’s actions and video editing, he is infatuated with Emma. The film does an exceptional job conveying the stalker’s motivations through his video manipulation and virtual actions. He is infatuated with Emma and will stop at nothing to get close to her. A second (and equally disturbing) filming reason pervading Ratter is the stalker’s compulsion to save and replay all of the footage surrounding Emma’s personal life.
This filming reason effectively plays into the fears of a society that is increasingly reliant on technology and equally concerned about privacy issues.
Found Footage Cinematography
The film’s cinematography is unique in its presentation as having been captured surreptitiously from multiple mobile devices. Using this trope, Emma unwittingly plays the role of cinematographer via the video cameras in her smartphone and laptop. The obscure angles and haphazard placement of Emma’s mobile devices are the driving force for most of the great looking footage.
Ratter makes use of both the front and rear-facing video cameras in Emma’s smartphone. The stalker often switches between these two cameras to capture the best vantage point. This filming approach results in many creative and unique found footage scenes. An added benefit of the smartphone camera is the inclusion of establishing shots of the places Emma visits.
Some of the more interesting scenes include shots of Emma’s ear as she takes calls, and walking the streets of New York City as Emma’s smartphone camera peers from her handbag. One subtle moment includes the view from under a university library table as Emma fiddles with the smartphone on her lap. These are activities most smartphone owners perform without giving much thought. The notion of the smartphone camera recording these seemingly private moments is disturbing.
The hijacked video feed from Emma’s laptop offers a wide variety of additional perspectives not often portrayed in found footage films. Video is captured of Emma using her laptop while taking notes in class, studying at the university library, and lounging on her couch at home. The camera in Emma’s game console functions as a fixed surveillance camera in her apartment, offering a stationary view of her living room, kitchen, and front door.
Emma’s complete lack of awareness leads to several scenes that otherwise would not be filmed. Some of her most intimate and compromising moments are captured – often even emphasized – with little regard for her privacy.
Ratter creatively includes background music akin to a soundtrack without violating any found footage rules. The film captures a plethora of music played through Emma’s game console as she exercises, and music played through her smartphone and laptop. The film also introduces environmental music during an evening at a dance club.
Seeing through the Eyes of the Antagonist
Ratter is comprised of raw video from Emma’s video cameras and video edited by the hacker. The film does a very good job expressing the hacker’s desires, mood, and intentions through the manner in which he edits the video. At times the hacker zooms in on particular details of interest, captures screen shots, and loops short scenes, effectively revealing his emotional state. One particularly memorable instance is the first time Emma and Michael show physical affection. When they kiss, the video cuts out suddenly with a flash of computer errors, suggesting that the stalker abruptly shut the feed off in a fit of anger.
While the stalker spies on Emma’s private moments, we spy on the stalker’s reactions to what he’s seeing. These subtle glimpses into the stalker’s mind personify his character, despite his lack of dialog and screen presence. The use of this technique throughout the film effectively thrusts viewers into the role of voyeur, adding to the discomfort of watching what plays out on screen.
The acting, especially on the part of Ashley Benson as Emma, is exceptional. The chemistry between Michael and Emma is believable, and Emma’s slow descent into fear and uncertainty is expertly portrayed. The lesser recurring characters such as Emma’s parents and ex-boyfriend Alex (who only appear in the film as voices on Emma’s phone or computer) are also well-acted.
Neither Ashley Benson nor Matt McGorry (who plays Michael) are strangers to acting. Ashley Benson previously held a recurring role in ABC’s “Pretty Little Liars” and guest appearances on other shows. Matt McGorry currently stars in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” and appeared in the first two seasons of Neflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”
Found Footage Purity
Ratter makes a good attempt at maintaining the illusion of authentic found footage. Particularly effective are Emma’s convincing unawareness and the often unstated but conspicuous presence of her stalker. Although very well executed, the found footage purity is not perfect.
The nightclub scene with Emma and Nicole is comprised of several short segments filmed with Emma’s smartphone. These segments are disjointed, and some are played in slow motion, yet the nightclub music plays uninterrupted throughout. Surround sound is used in a later scene to play recordings of Emma’s voice at varying volumes and locations. Ratter goes to great lengths to portray itself as having been recorded and manipulated in real-time. These audio and visual inconsistencies are more akin to traditional narrative filming and are difficult to reconcile in a found footage film.
Ratter also leverages sound design to ratchet up the tension throughout the film. Early in the film, this sound takes the form of a barely perceivable background hum. As Ratter progresses, the sound design escalates in volume and intensity as Emma feels more threatened by her stalker. By the climactic ending, the sound design transitions into an eerie music accompanying the more suspenseful moments of the film. Although blatant use of sound design can work in some styles of found footage, such as mockumentaries where post-production is part of the established milieu, this treatment is out of place in Ratter.
The pacing of Ratter is deliberately slow and methodical. The film begins with Emma in her new Brooklyn apartment and covers a relatively short period of time following her move. Emma attends school, meets her new friend Nicole, becomes romantically involved with Michael, and slowly settles into her new life. The movie shares some similarities to other films that involve hacking and are shot (at least partially) using webcams, such as The Den (2013) and Unfriended (2014). But while The Den and Unfriended evolve into more shock-oriented slasher films, Ratter remains primarily focused on the day-to-day minutia of Emma’s life.
Aside from the stalker’s slowly escalating interference, little else happens. While Ratter’s slow pacing and predictable plot may not appeal to all audiences, the film excels at steadily increasing tension over the course of the story.
The stalker’s intrusions into Emma’s life extend well beyond merely watching her. He manipulates her phone, remotely controls her laptop when she’s not looking, and starts briefly and ominously appearing in his own videos about thirty minutes into the movie. The increasing boldness of the stalker and Emma’s paranoia work well together to portray a creepy and foreboding atmosphere. Only as the plot advances does it become evident that the threat to Emma extends to actual physical danger.
Be sure to continue watching through the end credits for a bonus scene.