Untitled Horror Movie (2021)

It makes sense that the next evolution in Scary Movie horror parodies would take aim at the “screenlife” genre.  The only other major developments in the past couple decades of horror filmmaking are much more difficult to mock in a joke-a-minute comedy:  the slow-moving dread of elevated “A24 Horror”, the politically conscious “social thrillers” that have followed in the wake of Get Out, the big-budget reboots of iconic horrors from foreign markets or the distant past, etc.  It’s not that our recent horror trends are unimpeachable; they’re just tricky to parody in any succinct, recognizable way.  Meanwhile, screenlife movies (found footage thrillers framed through the POV of a laptop screen) like Unfriended, Sickhouse, Spree, and Searching have very clearly defined aesthetics & tropes that can easily be mocked for cheap-shot humor.  As a huge fan of screenlife filmmaking as a distinctly modern aesthetic, I was stoked to see someone take aim at such an obvious parodic target.  That’s why it’s such a shame this early attempt at a screenlife parody is an unfunny dud.

Untitled Horror Movie is a COVID-era production in which five L.A. actors (all playing parodies of L.A. actors) separately filmed their contributions to a central script.  Those exact production conditions led to last year’s excellent British indie horror Host, which is clearly one of the very best films produced in the screenlife genre to date.  Meanwhile, Untitled Horror Movie does absolutely nothing interesting with the limitations of its production except to constantly point them out to the audience by casting actors as actors.  Instead of coordinating a clear, linear script between each contributor, the-film-within-the-film asks each actor to read the exact same lines as each other in overlapping edits that make no sense in tandem.  They’re supposedly collaborating on making a screenlife horror film together in their downtime between filming seasons of the fictional TV show that employees them, but their shared line readings imply they’re all playing the same character in the script-within-the-script.  When we take breaks from those screenlife horror samples, it’s only to hear actors squabble about agents, auditions, movie studios, and co-writing credits.  It’s all very lazy & confused, and I have no clue how recognizable performers (including Kal Penn and Never Have I Ever‘s Darren Barnet) were roped into something so uninspired while the best films in this genre are often populated by talented nobodies.

Maybe my issue here is that I’m looking for Untitled Horror Movie to joke about the tropes of its genre, when it’s much more interested in the lifestyle tropes of the vain, vapid L.A. actor.  Even then, the only performer that comes halfway close to being funny here is Katherine McNamara’s schticky exaggeration of the industry’s blonde-ditz archetype, and you can never get past the sense that she’s a poor substitute for Meredith Hagner’s performance as Portia on Search Party.  The only commentary it has to offer on screenlife genre filmmaking is to shoehorn the word “meta” into every other scene so that its premise and title appear to be much cleverer than they actually are.  The film-within-the-film is met with a bidding war between Lionsgate & Netflix for a robust distribution deal.  Meanwhile, this real-life movie was first presented in a livestream premiere and then sold its streaming rights to some sub-Tubi ad platform called Plex.  There is a ton of potential in the screenlife horror parody as a concept, and this leaves all of it on the table for something much less distinct.  Hopefully someone else scoops up the idea for a much funnier movie with a clear parodic POV.

-Brandon Ledet

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