Characters doing and saying stupid things is not a new element of horror movies. From the old “running up the stairs” to the newer “my cell phone battery is dead”, these horror tropes have been sprinkled through lazy horror films for decades. Sometimes, though, a special movie comes along with the perfect storm of stupidity. When the level of idiocy reaches critical mass. That special movie is ATM, written by Chris Sparling and directed by David Brooks.
ATM concerns itself with a group of three people and the trials of trying to withdraw late night funds from an isolated ATM, all in the hopes of securing some pizza. That is our MacGuffin, our heroes’ goal. And in this case, an impossibly difficult one. If that seems unlikely, you haven’t met these three people. David(Brian Geraghty), Corey(Josh Peck), and Emily(Alice Eve) somehow work at an investment firm even though they don’t seem to have the combined cognitive ability to successfully work an ATM. This, at least, is the premise we are left to believe if the events of ATM are to enter the land of quasi-believability.
That is mainly because the events that follow are filled with moments of easy escape and obvious solutions that are ignored by these three people. This results in two outcomes: 1. The world’s most lackadaisical murderous madman in the history of horror ends up having successes he really shouldn’t be having, and 2. The audience begins to actively root for the death of these three protagonists. While the first result could be forgiven, the second one is the death blow to any effective horror film. If the viewer has no vested interest in the survival of the hero the film becomes procedural and, worst of all for a thriller, boring. At a point in ATM we assume the main characters will fail, basically because of the lack of aptitude shown, and the only reaction to this assumption is apathy.
If the character’s stupidity leads to apathy, the logistical leaps and clumsy expositional situations induces actual anger. As you can probably guess from the title, ATM strives to use its environment as a huge element of the supposed tension. The problem is that the environment is only mentioned when important to a plot point. It is never the least bit ominous let alone threatening. There is a supposed threat of freezing to death in this film, but there are large portions of it where a viewer could forget that it’s even chilly. The characters only respond to it when cued, it is not a force pushing down on them. It is a cheap stimuli that never feels real. Add a lack of physics, i.e. a non-water tight ATM booth filling up with water, and the entire film ends up a contrived failure of a movie.
With all of this lack of logic and stupidity on display, the element that really pushes the film over the cliff of ineptitude was the dialogue. Perhaps never in cinematic history have characters said the obvious out loud. Be it exposition that we’ve already seen or live commentary of the actions taking place, these characters spend more time making obvious comments than actually putting forth any problem solving effort. The director also falls prey to this. During the climax and the eventual “twist”, Brooks chooses to rehash footage from the film which is effectively him holding our hands and saying “see what we did there?”. In a movie filled with so many stupid characters and stupid logic, the real twist of ATM is that these characters were able to successfully dress themselves.