Writer-director Michael A. Nickles may momentarily shout out to Peeping Tom via a shot of its DVD, but Playback is merely a voyeurism-tinged horror film of dismal direct-to-video quality. Working from the ludicrous notion that Louis Le Prince—the real-life grandfather of cinema, having produced the world’s first motion picture with a single-lens camera—was actually the Devil (because, get this, Louis = Lucifer, and Le Prince = Prince of Darkness), Nickles’s story imagines Le Prince’s seminal Roundhay Garden Scene as a vehicle for Prince to pass down his demonic spirit to successive male ancestors. That unholy inheritance finally makes its way to the modern world in the form of Quinn (Toby Hemingway), a news station archivist who, while getting raw footage of a family’s Halloween-esque 1994 murder for a group of journalism students making a movie about the true crime, is possessed by the Le Prince spirit—a transference of souls performed through a video camera’s lens. This turns Quinn’s face gaunt and veiny, but more perplexing still, it gives him the power to possess others and turn them into his zombies, which leads him to plant video cameras in the bedrooms of high school girls so he can take control of them, as well as to get nuddie clips to sell to a local cop (Christian Slater) with a taste for young flesh.
Playback posits cinema as a conduit for Satanic evil, but has nothing to say about the act of watching, except that its uniform horridness functions as an unintentional commentary on enduring pitiful horror-movie conventions. Nickles offers static-y visual flourishes as well as a killer with an increasingly deep, pseudo-creepy voice without getting anywhere near actual suspense, and his tale’s idea of clever allusions involves having his obnoxious one-dimensional teen protagonists list The Ring and Scream as their favorite genre efforts. Devoid of terror, the filmmaker soon succumbs to piling on excessive gore and gratuitous T&A, both of which culminate in a scene featuring a teen giving Slater’s perverted cop a lap dance and then, shortly thereafter, being showered in blood. It’s nonsensicality, however, that truly renders the action laughable, with its basic conceit holding up to such little scrutiny—by the plot’s logic, the demon had just been hiding out in a videotape, waiting until someone hopefully watched it again?—that it soon feels as if the film is simply making up its rules on the fly. Consequently, the scariest thing about Playback is its dim-wittedness—and, also, the sight of Slater being reduced to participating in such schlock.