Bryan Singer | 86 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R
This is the feature debut of director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and Singer’s regular editor/composer John Ottman, who would go on to make their names two years later when they created The Usual Suspects (for which McQuarrie even won an Oscar). Despite that — and their careers since — Public Access seems to be little-seen, with less than 800 votes on IMDb (for comparison, Singer’s next lowest is Apt Pupil with over 30,000 votes, and all his other films are in six figures).
The story sees a mysterious stranger, Whiley (Ron Marquette), arrive in the small town of Brewster and book a slot on the local public access TV station, during which he invites viewers to call in to anonymously air their grievances about Brewster and its inhabitants. Soon all the townsfolk are talking about is Whiley’s catchphrase: “What’s wrong with Brewster?”
It’s an intriguing setup for a movie. What secrets lurk beneath the surface of this pretty little town? Who is this stranger and what are his motives? How will the community react to the previously-secret complaints and possible revelations? Unfortunately, Public Access does very little to explore any of those possibilities. It actually toddles along quite nicely for a while — it’s kind of understated; slow in a good way; things appears to be building up to something; there’s some kind of mystery — and then, just over halfway through, Whiley has an incredibly cheesy dream/flashback/premonition, and then the film awkwardly swerves into serial killer thriller territory. I guess that could work, maybe, but it rushes through events, not explaining anything. Then it ends.
What shines through the poor storytelling (and the crappy almost-VHS-level transfer on the DVD) is some obvious proficiency at filmmaking from all involved. There are many bits of nice direction from Singer, a few fairly well written and performed scenes, good editing, an effective use of music, and some gorgeous autumnal orange photography… though a lot of the interiors and stuff look rather orangey too, so I’m not entirely sure if this was intentional or just that shitty transfer. Well, whether by accident or design, it looked like it was good.
Public Access was made for just $250,000, according to IMDb, so perhaps they just ran out of money to shoot everything they needed. Perhaps they were just going for a level of ambiguity that doesn’t come over properly. I was going to say “perhaps I didn’t get it”, but I’m far from alone: Variety said it was “vague about important matters as key story points, motivation and overriding theme”; Newsweek reckoned that “after an intriguing buildup […] the story self-destructs”; and the Hollywood Reporter called it “a virtuosically stylish independent feature that is as full of flourishes as it is devoid of meaning”.
There’s talent on display here, and fortunately Singer and co were given the opportunity to spin that out into the successful careers they’ve enjoyed since (well, mostly… but let’s not get into the Singer stuff right now). Public Access isn’t an undiscovered early gem on anyone’s CV, but it was interesting to see nonetheless.