Late Night with the Devil (2023)

It’s easy to get dispirited by the deluge of current pop culture product that’s just nostalgic regurgitation of vintage hits from decades ago.  If you dwell on how much of our current “creative” output is just a distant echo of pre-existing iconic works, you’re only going to see a culture in decline.  Not all pastiche is empty, though.  While most nostalgia bait cites past triumphs for an easy pop of recognition, there are plenty modern throwbacks that sincerely interrogate or subvert the artistic intent & cultural context of their inspirational texts.  For every Netflix special that drags the Power Rangers out of retirement for a nostalgia-stoker victory lap, there’s an absurdist French comedy that subverts & recontextualizes that same vintage 90s iconography into something wonderfully new & strange.  The same day I saw Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist Power Rangers parody Smoking Causes Coughing at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, I also happened to catch a similarly subversive nostalgia piece in Late Night with the Devil, which dialed the pop culture clock even further back for even weirder effect (and won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Feature as a result).  Late Night with the Devil is vintage TV Land horror, a parody of a late-night 70s talk show broadcast that’s hijacked midway by The Devil.  It stokes vintage 1970s pop culture nostalgia as its initial hook, but mostly just uses that temporal backdrop for a sense of comfort & familiarity that can be stripped away for effective third-act scares once the titular Devil is conjured.  It’s also thematically purposeful in returning to that era because it has something specific to say about pop culture at that time, an embarrassingly low bar that isn’t cleared by more routine nostalgia cash-ins like the upcoming Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Once & Always.

David Dastmalchian stars as a late-night talk show host who teeters somewhere between the post-vaudevillian comedy of Johnny Carson and the cigar-smoke intellectualism of Dick Cavett.  After a faux-documentary prologue sketches out the basic outline of Dastmalchian’s fictional Night Owl talk show (including its imagined ratings war with Carson and its host’s personal dabblings in the occult), we’re submerged in a real-time Sweeps Week novelty episode of the show, supposedly broadcast on Halloween Night in 1977.  Even within that Halloween Special context, Late Night with the Devil mostly functions as a loose collection of 70s kitsch, touching on iconic-to-forgotten figures of the era like Orson Welles, Anton LaVey, and The Amazing Kreskin as if they’re all of equal importance.  Things get dicey when the Night Owl producers restage a real-life version of Friedkin’s 70s horror classic The Exorcist as a shameless ratings stunt, unwittingly unleashing a powerful demon that calls itself Mr. Wriggles onto the American public through live broadcast.  The demonic scares of the film’s back half allow its initial Nick at Nite nostalgia trip to go wildly off the rails in exciting, unpredictable ways.  It also opens the text up for direct, sincere criticism of the era’s professional machismo – interrogating the ways that men nearing the top of the corporate ladder were willing to exploit the vulnerable underlings below them (especially if they’re women) just to scramble up the last few rungs.  Sweeps Week desperation has never been so deadly, nor has inane talk show chatter about “current” events & the weather. 

If there’s anything holding Late Night with the Devil back from achieving greatness as a standalone novelty, it’s that there are so many nostalgia-critical genre throwbacks already out there to match or best.  In particular, its real-time simulation of an actual cursed, vintage TV broadcast is outshone by the Satanic Panic era news report parody film WNUF Halloween Special, which is also framed as a ratings stunt gone wrong.  Not only does WNUF have more politically incisive things to say about the cultural moment it time-travels to for cheap gags & scares, but it also fully commits to the bit in a way Late Night with the Devil doesn’t dare.  Instead of repeating the WNUF trick of breaking up its broadcast with parodies of vintage television commercials, Late Night cheats by bolstering its narrative with backstage drama & impossible “documentary” footage that distract from the verisimilitude of its premise.  It’s a frustrating indulgence at first, but the film eventually makes the most of it in a go-for-broke, reality-bending finale that’s worth forgiving the few shortcut cheats it takes to get there.  If you don’t mind a little logical looseness in your “found footage” horror novelties, Late Night with the Devil is perfectly calibrated Halloween Season programming.  It pulls double duty in both nostalgically calling back to vintage horrors past (which is especially welcome if you’ve already seen The Exorcist and its many knockoffs one too many times) and finds modern political & technological justifications in returning to those well-treaded waters.  It’s not nostalgia bait so much as it’s nostalgia perversion, which is a much more interesting angle than you’ll find most modern pop culture attempting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Outwaters (2023)

You’d think that after a half-decade of horror’s outer limits being defined by A24’s emphasis on atmosphere & metaphor, the genre would overcorrect by snapping back to surface-level cheap thrills, just for the sake of variety.  And I guess in some ways it has.  Recent breakout successes like M3GAN, Barbarian, Smile, and Malignant have signaled a wide audience appetite for high-concept gimmick premises with traditional jump-scare payoffs & haunted house decor.  At the same time, though, some of the buzziest horror titles in recent memory have dug their heels even further into arty atmospherics, carving out a new horror of patience & subliminals.  I’m thinking particularly of Skinamarink—which simulates childhood nightmares by applying eerie digital filters to public domain cartoons & shots of empty hallways—and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – which borrows heavily from online creepypasta lore & imagery without ever directly participating in the horror genre.  These are low-fi, low-budget works that distort the atmospheric horror aesthetic of recent years into D.I.Y. bedroom art, removing even more of the genre’s crowd-pleasing tropes & payoffs so that it feels entirely abstracted & unfamiliar.  And now the arrival of the found-footage cosmic horror The Outwaters makes that doubling-down feel like a legitimate trend.

For anyone curious to dip their toe into this (loosely defined) low-fi horror trend, The Outwaters may be the most accessible entry point.  It will test your patience just as much as its sister chiller Skinamarink, but it rewards that effort with a much more pronounced, traditional payoff.  It’s my personal favorite among these recent low-key creepouts, anyway, since I tend to prefer bloody catharsis over eerie atmospherics.  The Outwaters effectively splits the difference between horror’s current trends towards both moody abstraction & on-the-surface cheap thrills.  It starts as a low-key, mildly spooky drama about parental grief, but eventually ditches any tidy metaphorical readings for a lengthy, bloody, freewheeling freakout in the Mojave Desert.  As trippy as it can be in its Skinamarinkian disorientation, it’s anchored to a concise, recognizable premise that could neatly be categorized as The Blair Witch Project Part IV: Blair Witch Goes to Hanging Rock.  It strikes a nice balance between the slow-moving quiet of its bedroom art brethren and mainstream horror’s return to big, bold, bloody haunted house scares.  Maybe that makes it a less artistically daring film than World’s Fair or Skinamarink, but it also makes it a more overtly entertaining one.

I’m likely overselling the relative accessibility of The Outwaters here.  By design, the first 2/3rds of the runtime are kind of a monotonous bore.  The film is presented as the raw, unedited footage of three memory cards recovered in the desert, revealing the final days of four twentysomethings who went missing in 2017.  The switch between memory cards provides natural chapter breaks as the four friends leave their urban comfort zone to shoot a music video in the sun-bleached wasteland.  They reminisce about dead parents, wake up to deafening booms in the night sky, and become increasingly distracted from the art project they originally ventured to shoot.  Otherwise, though, there isn’t much in the way of horror on this road trip into the abyss – just good buds being buds.  Then we get to Card 3.  The Outwaters saves all of its go-for-broke haunted house freakouts for its final chapter, where it unleashes an axe-wielding maniac, intestinal snake monsters, genital gore, and enough cyclical time-loop mindfuckery to make Benson & Moorhead seem like timid cowards in comparison.  By the end of the third memory card, I was desperate to return to the aimless hangouts of the first hour.  The finale is a relentless, disorienting assault on the senses, and I loved every squirmy minute of it.

You can tell The Outwaters was made cheaply just by glancing at the credits, where Robbie Banfitch’s name repeats as writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and special effects artist.  The most encouraging thing about this recent crop of low-fi horror freakouts is how far & wide they’re being distributed. In decades past, they would’ve been left to rot at local film festivals & VHS swaps.  In that context, I greatly admire Banfitch’s attempts to offer his audience the same startling scare gags they’d find in much less artistically ambitious horror-of-the-week products from major studios.  The Cronenbergian flesh snakes who screech and lunge at the film’s small cast are some of the most disturbing onscreen monsters I’ve encountered in a while, regardless of budget level.  Meanwhile, Skinamarink has a more novel approach to D.I.Y. nightmare imagery, but its visual language is limited to recognizable, everyday objects: popcorn ceilings, vintage toys, cathode ray TVs, etc.  I still don’t think The Outwaters could be honestly marketed as an accessible, mainstream horror flick; most audiences will feel alienated by it.  It does reward your attention & patience a little more than its easiest comparison points, though; maybe even more so than the original Blair Witch.

-Brandon Ledet

Incantation (2022)

There are a lot (a lot) of ways in which Netflix is one of the most frustrating, underwhelming streaming behemoths in the game, but I will give them this: they’re a useful conduit for international genre cinema.  Most of the American-market content that floods that platform’s splash page is dull, overlit, purposefully disposable dreck, but if you know what you’re looking for, there’s plenty international genre gems lurking in the search pages – Indian action epics like RRR, Korean sci-fi adventures like Space Sweepers, Indonesian martial-arts romances like Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, and now the Taiwanese found-footage horror Incantation.  Just three months after Incantation premiered to great commercial success in Taiwanese theaters, it was available to stream globally on Netflix . . . as long as you knew to look for it.  That’s a remarkable turnaround when you think back to the video store days of the aughts, when horror nerds would spend years waiting to track down bootleg copies of then-obscure J & K-horror titles that fell through the cracks of American distribution (i.e. weren’t backed by Tartan Extreme).  I don’t want to give the money-torching, art-minimizing, transphobe-enabling corporate chuds at Netflix HQ too much credit, but they can be a good resource when it comes to international genre pictures.

I honestly don’t know much about the general history of Taiwanese horror (which is partly why it’s cool to have it beamed directly into my living room like this), but it is easy to see why Incantation was such a runaway success – the biggest Taiwanese box office earner of 2022 so far and the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time.  It’s spooky as hell.  The movie does little to overcome the decades of post-Blair Witch found footage fatigue in its mood, look, or story, but it does craft some genuinely terrifying images that will soon be making guest appearances in the audience’s nightmares.  Its writhing bugs, rotting flesh, flaming demons, dental mutations, and cursed Buddhist statues should shock even the most jaded viewers.  There isn’t much to the central story of a single mother who “violated a religious taboo” in a sacred tunnel, then spent the next six years fearfully protecting her daughter from the evil “deity” that seeks revenge for the transgression.  If anything, the movie deliberately obscures the rules & specifics of its mythmaking, explaining that “the more you know about it, the more it plagues you”.  That makes watching Incantation feel like a dangerous risk in itself (à la Ringu), but it also frees it from having to fully sketch out the shape & boundaries of its central threat.  There’s just a general curse hanging over our anti-heroine in distress, represented by a wide range of fucked up, bone-chilling images that linger in your mind way longer than the narrative that justifies them.

In theory, I’m all for Incantation using a bare-bones Evil Curse premise as a broad excuse for a loose collection of ghouls & scare gags.  In practice, I was a little disappointed by how much it cheats on its own found-footage conceit, muddying its believability & narrative immersion with non-linear editing of dual timelines and preposterous camera placements that violate the basic rules of the format.  The movie isn’t interested in working within the found-footage medium, so I’m not sure why it bothered, other than camcorder, smartphone, and CCTV security footage being cheap to replicate.  At the very least, it could have shot the flashbacks to the inciting religious transgression in a found-footage format, while shooting the present-day fallout of that blunder like a Regular Movie, since it wanted to use multiple camera set-ups & professional editing techniques in those sequences so badly.  Of course, this an embarrassingly nerdy thing to complain about, since the movie is spooky enough to (mostly) get away with ignoring its own premise.  It’s just that I’m usually very forgiving to that kind of rule-bending, and even I thought it cheated a little too much to get by unnoticed.

Pedantic nitpicking aside, Incantation joins a lot of the better over-the-plate horror freak-outs of the past couple years, titles like The Medium, The Empty Man, and The Queen of Black Magic.  It’s just as cool to be spooked by its tangential scare gags as it is to watch that strand of modern horror reach into a new cultural context most international audiences don’t often see onscreen.  And those other titles were not nearly as substantial of cultural hits in their own countries (Thailand, America, and Indonesia, respectfully), while Incantation measurably resonated with its domestic audience.  In its most ambitious moments, it asks its audience to participate in Buddhist prayer, actively getting further involved in a curse that gets exponentially worse the more you learn about it.  I’ll never understand the full cultural significance of those prayers, but it’s the kind of big, abstract idea that cuts through the petty scene-to-scene concerns of its found-footage cheats.  The eeriness of those audience participation prompts combines with the shock of its individual scares to make the film worth a look for any horror audience no matter where they live on the globe, and thanks to Netflix’s international genre acquisitions the entire globe has access to it while it’s still fresh.

-Brandon Ledet

The Medium (2021)

In the abstract, giving The Exorcist a found-footage update for the 2020s sounds tedious, but The Medium manages to feel freshly upsetting & emotionally engaged while never drifting outside those genre boundaries.  It helps that the film was produced by Na Hong-jin, director of 2016’s The Wailing – the last great Exorcist-scale possession horror to rejuvenate the genre.  In the early stages of development, Na proposed that Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun collaborate with him on a direct sequel to The Wailing (presumably on the strength of Banjong’s breakthrough hit Shutter), but the concept gradually spiraled out into its own unique horror epic separate from that source of inspiration.  Considering the limitations of its initial concept, the general over-saturation of body-possession & found-footage horror media, and its 30-day shooting schedule, The Medium is impressively massive in its scope & imagination.  This is big-scale blockbuster horror achieved on a scrappy indie budget, and it still manages to be scary as hell.

The Exorcist looms too large in horror iconography for any possession story to avoid the comparison, but The Medium does more to stray from Friedkin’s genre blueprint than simply exporting it to international religious contexts outside the original’s Catholicism.  Stretching its legs with a 131min runtime helps create enough space for the film to distinguish itself from that ancestry, as does its modern-documentary framing device (which obviously triggers its own preloaded horror canon comparisons).  We get to know the mockumentary’s subjects for a long while before the supernatural terror escalates to a fever pitch, which helps lay a solid emotional foundation most modern horrors don’t bother building.  It’s the story of a small family in the rural region of Isan, Thailand, whose women pass down the spirit (and professional occupation) of a shaman through generational inheritance.  While the current shaman’s niece seems to be inheriting that spirit as the next natural successor, it turns out the spirit taking root in her body is something much more sinister.  Deadly hijinks ensue, despite the shaman-aunt’s best efforts to exorcise the unwanted presence from her innocent niece’s body.

For all its ambitious scale & intimate familial drama, The Medium is most impressive for its efficiency in delivering every possible genre payoff it can squeeze into its spacious runtime.  It attempts eerie atmospheric dread and cheap-thrills jump scares.  It genuinely engages with the emotional drama at the core of its spiritual inheritance story and indulges in squirmy cultural taboos that would turn off most horror naysayers.  It’s also not afraid to invite comparisons to iconic touchstones of the found-footage canon – including the shaky-cam nature runs of The Blair Witch Project, the night-vision security footage of Paranormal Activity, and the vertical smartphone aspect ratios of the genre’s current “screenlife” era.  Still, it throws so much supernatural mayhem at the screen in its go-for-broke third act that it manages to do things I’ve never seen in any found footage movie before, especially in the way its possessed victims directly, violently interact with the camera crew & their equipment.  The actual possession half of its hybrid-genre is less surprising in its execution, but it’s remarkably upsetting & brutal all the same.

I’m glad we were gifted The Medium instead of The Wailing Part II: Possession Boogaloo, as initially planned.  Then again, I would’ve also been skeptical of the final product’s “found-footage Exorcist” premise had I not seen the results.  This is one of those shining examples of how little a movie’s chosen genre template actually affects its overall quality.  It’s all in the execution, and this particular Exorcist deviation is executed with both fury & elegance.

-Brandon Ledet

WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

There are plenty of recent horror gems that indulge in reverent nostalgia for the genre’s VHS era – from Censor to Rent-a-Pal to Beyond the Gates to the aptly-titled anthology series V/H/S.  I doubt any could match the detailed authenticity of the found-footage horror anthology WNUF Halloween Special, though, which goes far beyond the tape-warp filters and Tim & Eric quirk humor that usually define the limits of modern horror’s VHS throwbacks.  Inspired by the real-life War of the Worlds-style hoax broadcast Ghostwatch, the WNUF Halloween Special carefully simulates a local news broadcast from Halloween Night in 1987, complete with all the commercial breaks, fashion faux pas, and technical flubs you’d expect from that time & setting.  Smartly, it sets its spooky news show in a fantasy world where only a couple commercials are miserably repeated every ad break instead of, you know, all of them. It also helps speed along the proceedings (and helps justify its wear-and-tear VCR tracking) by making its found-footage framing device a taped-off-the-TV VHS cassette instead of a live broadcast, allowing us to fast-forward past the more tedious, redundant segments that plague local news shows.  More importantly, that POV choice helps underline the creepiness of its on-screen violence by raising uneasy questions about who is holding the remote control.

As its title suggest, WNUF Halloween Special is most satisfying as Halloween Night programming.  It doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a last-minute reveal, well after its regular news segments bleed into a special investigative report inside a local haunted house.  Until its sub-Geraldo reporter-on-the-street is tormented by murderous ghosts in the third act, the film is more about ~vibes~ than it is about story.  There’s an eeriness to the way its supernatural terror (with a horrific history of familial tragedy) is treated as a cutesy human interest story by the news anchor hosts, but that unease is counterbalanced by adorably costumed locals and Halloween-themed commercials  Until the film is ready to reveal what’s really going on inside its cursed suburban home, it almost plays like mood-setting background fodder for a Halloween house party; you can get away with chatting over beers with friends while only keeping one eye on the screen and not miss any of its core substance.  It’s basically the movie equivalent of one of those Halloween sound-effects cassettes that used to come with spooky-season Happy Meals.  I mean that as a compliment, as so much of what it’s trying to achieve is a time-warp nostalgia trip to Halloweens past.  Mood & atmosphere are its entire point.

Even though the WNUF Halloween Special delays all progress of its narrative until the last possible minute, it does end up justifying its 1980s setting by actually having something to say about that era beyond how cool its ephemera looks in retrospect.  A lot of the more inane, throwaway news segments in the early broadcast stoke the Satanic Panic moral craze of that era with a polite, irresponsible smile.  As nostalgic as it can be for the look of 1980s cultural leftovers, it’s also sharply critical of the regressive, reactionary politics lurking under the surface of that microwaved nostalgia.  If you’re looking for a purely goofy, reverent VHS nostalgia trip to vintage home video recordings, its recent spiritual successor VHYes wrings out just as many found-footage scares from its own sketch-comedy parodies.  The WNUF Halloween Special is more honest about the real-world evils & idiocies of its temporal subject (even if it does spare you from having to watch the same local commercial more than twice).  There are plenty of modern novelty horrors with a nostalgic eye for VHS tape warp & tacky 1980s fashion, but they’re rarely this fun to watch with friends or this thoughtful about what horrors really haunted our culture in that era.  Plus, thanks to a (currently sold-out) home video release from Camp Motion Pictures it’s also one of the only examples you can actually view on its ideal VHS format.

-Brandon Ledet

Host (2020)

I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.

In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.

Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.

Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.

-Brandon Ledet

Damascene (2017)

The democratization of filmmaking technology has meant that it’s now affordable for anyone to have a voice in modern cinema, whether or not they have properly funded distribution or production values to back them up. Films like Creep, Primer, and Tangerine, while benefiting from traditional modes of distribution, have been exciting reminders of just how much a no-budget indie can accomplish with the right players & screenplay. The recent found footage dark comedy Damascene, which saw its world premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, isn’t nearly as high profile of a release as those shining examples of minimalist digital filmmaking, but is just as worthy to be lauded for the effect it accomplishes with severely limited, available-to-anyone means. Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.

Two old lovers reunite by accident after a long absence while biking to a mutual friend’s party. They film each other in conversation with their own helmet-mounted GoPros while cruising the streets, parks, and back allies of a sunshine-drenched London. The conversation starts amicably enough. The woman is guarded & perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion of her old boyfriend on what was a solo bike ride, but they find enough common ground to casually discuss as they leisurely make their way to the party: making fun of their friends for treating romance like a social media meme, reminiscing over half-remembered anecdotes and a shared political interest in war-torn Syria, pop culture touchstones like Friends, Event Horizon, Bukowski, etc. Thiis protective shield of social niceties eventually corrodes, however, and their rapport takes a dark turn. Picking at the barely-healed scabs of their failed romance uncovers a long-buried trauma and an unresolved act of violence that can’t remain undiscussed forever. The darkness at the heart of Damascene gradually creeps in with a casually tossed-out sexist joke or an alcoholism-blurred memory of an nonconsensual public groping, chipping away at the pair’s apparent camaraderie. Once the guard wall is fully breached there’s a full, unstoppable catharsis in the film’s tragic streak that poisonously overpowers any kindness or illusion of healing that came before it.

It’s initially tempting to view Damascene as a Before Sunrise descendant, if not only for its structure as a single conversation contained mostly between two romantically-linked characters. The film is so much more caustic than Richard Linklater’s melancholic romance series, however. Its thematic explorations of unchecked privilege, toxic masculinity, and lingering trauma sit heavy on the audience’s conscience, especially as they’re brushed aside with playfully dark social humor. It makes total sense that one of the two main players is a former playwright, since this mix of comic & tragic tones combines with the conversational storytelling to amount to a very distinct stage play aesthetic. Staging this conversation through hydraulic-smoothed GoPro footage makes this dialogue-based work feel inherently cinematic, though. The camera operators build tension by squeezing between cars in London traffic and offer an eye-level version of drone footage of the city that feels unique to its productions style. Better yet, it’s often easy to forget you’re watching GoPro footage at all, once the dread & mystery of the dark places the conversation is going commands the back half. Damascene is proof in itself that there are great films to be made out of less than ideal equipment, even if it is never distributed wide enough for most audiences to see that proof for themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

Afflicted (2014), Unfriended (2015), and the Future of Found Footage Horror

After the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror market was flooded with found footage echoes of that pioneer work that diluted its legacy. Titles like [Rec.], Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, and straight-to-DVD dreck too bland to even be named exhausted the possibilities of how the found footage gimmick could be kept fresh on the horror landscape despite the limitations of its form. There’s still an occasional success that follows a traditional found footage formula (The Visit & Creep both immediately come to mind), but for the most part that subgenre still feels oddly faithful to the roadmap laid out by Blair Witch almost two decades ago. For me, the most exciting developments in found footage gimmickry have been the instances where movies leave behind the handheld camcorders of Blair Witch entirely and switch up the technology of the devices used to record their horrors. Our current Movie of the Month, Unfriended, is my go-to example of how updates in technology can keep this genre alive. Framed entirely within the POV of a laptop screen during a deadly Skype conversation, Unfriended offers a new, novel perspective on found footage storytelling. It recaptures the “It could happen to you” verisimilitude of Blair Witch’s camcorder format without merely repeating the trick. The subsequent shift to smartphone POV (via Snapchat) in Sickhouse wasn’t quite as memorable, but at least offers hope that future technology jumps can keep this genre fresh. We can’t continue to produce carbon copies of The Blair Witch Project and expect them to remain effective. Its modes of “documentation” no longer reflect the way we film our lives, in supernatural thrillers or otherwise.

I believe Unfriended is the best technology jump I’ve seen among Blair Witch descendants, but it wasn’t the first. A year before Unfriended hit wide release, a much smaller indie horror titled Afflicted offered its own Blair Witch technology advancement in what could (reductively) be described as GoPro Horror. Written, directed by, and starring Derek Lee & Chris Prowse (who use their own names & old photographs in the film), Afflicted adapts vampire transformation horror to the format of a reality show-style travelogue. Two American buddies take a break from their daily drudgery as an I.T. bro (who’s suffering an aneurysm-causing brain disorder) & a low-level documentarian (who just wants to shake his bestie out of his medically-induced rut) to backpack through Europe in search for excitement, experience, adventure, and distraction. They document their every waking moment on a shared “video travel blog” titled Ends of the Earth. Things take a bad turn when the aneurysm-suffering tech bro engages in a one night stand hookup with a French girl and is unwittingly turned into a vampire. The bubbly self-promo energy of the reality show travelogue then slips away as the focus shifts to documenting the supernatural changes in his body, which range from the ailments & abilities of a superhero to those of a bloodthirsty monster. By the end of the film he’s a fully feral Nosferatu, wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris with wild abandon. Afflicted is an exciting balance of dirt cheap, accessible technology (most notably in its use of GoPro footage) and large scale CGI horror spectacle. The tension between those two aesthetics pumps fresh blood into the veins of two over-drained horror subgenres (the found footage horror & the vampire myth) while still maintain the feeling of two normal buds making a no-budget indie together. As the technology of its camera equipment becomes more obsolete, it might stand a chance as surviving as an essential cultural document, just as Unfriended captures what life online feels like in the 2010s (except maybe with less vampirism & ghost murders, respectively).

As much as I remain impressed with Afflicted’s use of new technology to revitalize the found footage gimmick, I do have to admit that its basic accomplishment have become less novel over time. Spring offered a much better version of the supernatural European vacation from Hell narrative (sans the found footage device). They’re Watching (although total garbage) was more fully invested in the reality show turned found footage horror format (which still has more room to be fully explored). Most importantly, though, Unfriended’s commitment to framing its entire story through a single Skype session has since made Afflicted’s only occasional use of GoPros seem a little half-assed in retrospect. At this year’s New Orleans Film Fest I saw a darkly funny, merciless drama titled Damascene that proved it’s possible to film an entire movie on GoPros without it inherently feeling like a Hardcore Henry-style first person shooter. Afflicted mostly saves its GoPro sequences for its final, action-packed stretch as our vampiric antihero is being chased by Interpol for his crimes against innocent Parisians. Most of the movie is seemingly filmed on handheld digital camcorders, which makes it more a direct Blair Witch descendant than the much more fully committed Unfriended. Still, an intense focus is placed on the technology behind the documentation, even including a scene where all of the documentarian’s gear is laid out & cataloged on a hotel room bed (chest-mounts, GoPros, zoom lenses, etc.). The movie also finds the technological novelty in its attention to the two buddies’ travel blog, especially in how they crowdsource information through the comment sections. Afflicted may be slipping in my estimation in how its GoPro horror gimmick is used to revitalize the found footage format, but it’s still endlessly impressive in how it punches above its weight by playing with the latest available technological tools.

Although Afflicted is not as fully committed to its employment of GoPro technology to revitalize found footage horror as Unfriended was with Skype or Sickhouse was with Snapchat, it’s still worthy as an early signifier that the genre will only survive & remain fresh if it’s allowed to keep up with the technology of its time. I’m not convinced that Afflicted would have been half as interesting as a vampire transformation narrative or as a found footage horror piece without its GoPro technology & travel blog documentation providing modern online culture texture to its basic aesthetic. Just a year later, Unfriended did the same for the traditional ghost story within a found footage context, although admittedly with a fuller, better-realized commitment to its gimmick. It’s unclear what the next technology jump is for the found footage genre (although it’s likely a return to the Sickhouse smartphone gimmick is likely what’s next for Unfriended 2, at least), but the further the genre moves away from the handheld camcorders of The Blair Witch Project the better. There’s no reason for the genre to remain stuck in the technology of 1999 and the more it makes an effort to keep up with the gear available to its characters in the era they’re terrorized onscreen, the more effective it will remain as a mode of true-to-life horror & a cultural document.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017), and last week’s discussion of our hopes for it just-announced sequel.

-Brandon Ledet

What We’d Most Like to See from the Sequel to Unfriended (2015)

It takes a few months of vetting & email exchanges to pull off our regular Movie of the Month discussions, so our individual selections for the feature are typically scheduled long before they’re published on the site. Even with that publishing delay, though, our selections often stumble into serendipitous timing. For instance, it turns out this October was an especially good time for us to return to the found footage social media horror Unfriended for a Movie of the Month round-table. Not only did the conversation happen to coincide with the American release of Unfriended‘s German knockoff, Friend Request, but it was also just announced that a sequel to the laptop-framed sleeper hit has already been filmed and is looking for a near-future release date. So, with this already-completed sequel lurking on the digital horizon and its gimmicky supernatural horror predecessor fresh on our minds, we thought it’d be a good time to weigh in as a crew on what we’d most like to see from Unfriended 2.

Britnee: What I most want to see in Unfriended 2 would be for the victims to actually leave their homes in order to get to the bottom of a cyber mystery. Confining the entire crew of teens to their bedrooms for most of the first Unfriended got to be a little boring. Each teen could be on FaceTime together (I think more than two people can be on it at once?). They’d all be tasked with figuring out the true reason Laura Barns died by visiting her grave, the place where she shot herself, etc. The idea of using smartphones to communicate with each other instead of laptops seems to be more modern, so I’m assuming the film will go in that direction.

Also, what if Laura had a brother or sister that wanted to avenge her death? A Barns sibling could act as a lure to get shitty teens to visit Laura’s haunted cyber world where they’d meet super crazy/brutal deaths. Laura can kill a couple of teens and her sibling can try their hand at murder too.

Brandon: My initial impulse would also be to switch up Unfriended‘s technology gimmick to a new device or platform from the laptop-framed Skype chat POV of the original. The mental roadblock I’m running into there, though, is that a lot of the better options have already been taken.  Sickhouse already delivered a Snapchat Story version of The Blair Witch Project, so smartphones have been done. Afflicted already supposed what a supernatural horror would look like filmed entirely through GoPros. Neither work is perfect, but by repeating either gimmick, Unfriended 2 risks becoming a kind of redundancy. Its only technological refuge from there might be framing its story from the POV of an Apple Watch, and I’m not even sure I would want to watch that.

With little choice but to repeat the laptop-framed Skype conversation format from the first film, I think Unfriended 2‘s best chance for satisfying audiences is the usual route taken by slasher sequels: going broader with the humor and gorier with the kills. There’s an endless sea of electronic appliances out there that the next wave of online teen bullies could be forced to kill themselves with by Laura Barns’s ghost. Salsa blenders & hair straighteners have already been employed, but there’s still clothing irons, trash compactors, egg beaters, dishwashers, light sockets, and all kinds of other household electronics that could be used to dispose of Unfriended 2‘s teenage trash. Just look to the bonkers Stephen King trash fire Maximum Overdrive for more inspiration there. The sequel could even forgo the verisimilitude of the online experience in the first film and go full-on live action cartoon in its sense of gimmick-dependent novelty. Why not fully commit and kill the new batch of kids with lethal pop up ads or literal computer viruses?

Basically, like with most slashers, I don’t expect Unfriended 2 to be anywhere near as good as the original film, so I think its best chance for memorability is to be as violent and as silly as possible.

Alli: I know you think smartphones and Snapchat wouldn’t be original enough, but I haven’t seen a movie that utilizes those in this context. I really would like a ridiculous Unfriended-style murder with the dog Snapchat filter flipped on. Or maybe a horrific face swap.

Also, the ending is a little ambiguous. Maybe Blaire lived to tell the tale. Maybe Laura messed her up just enough that she’s going to be babbling about ghosts for the rest of her life, which could lead to the cliché, but inevitable horror movie mental institution scene.

There could even be an element of The Ring involved, where the YouTube video of Laura’s suicide is now cursed. A group of kids from the same high school could have watched it and now face the same fate as the original teens.

I know all of this sounds very derivative, but the idea of a sequel to a movie that was this tightly wrapped up seems like a cash grab.

It could also be interesting if Unfriended 2 went straight to a streaming service and worked that in somehow. An “Are you still watching?” prompt after a violent death scene would be a delightfully goofy moment.

Boomer: I’d like to once again note my surprise at the fact that not only was Unfriended decent, but actually pretty good. With that in mind, I don’t have much hope for the sequel. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie, but the need for a sequel gave us the underwhelming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I think actually works on some levels as a creepy film about people losing time and being possessed in the woods, but is terrible as a continuation of the original story for various reasons, not the least of which is a rejection of the first film’s found footage roots in favor of a more traditional cinematic style). Alternatively, we could end up with something like Scream 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that is competent and almost as good as the original, if not of equal quality.

My biggest complaint about Unfriended was that it set Blaire up as a traditional Final Girl and then cut her to shreds. I remain unconvinced that she was deserving of the retribution that she received; I was never fully convinced that she participated in the creation of sock puppet accounts to encourage Laura to kill herself, and the fact that she (in her own drunkenness) filmed Laura in her inebriated, passed out state (but didn’t, at least in my reading of the text, share the video) is casually unthinking but not outright cruel. If anything, I’m hoping that the sequel will clarify this and show whether or not Blaire was, in fact, deserving of the vitriol heaped on her. Maybe we’ll see her as the new internet poltergeist, doling out unbalanced revenge on those who commented on her own Facebook, or she’ll be like Alice from the first two Friday the 13th films, surviving to the end only to be killed off in the first scene of the follow-up. Only time will tell.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017).

-The Swampflix Crew

Unfriended (2015), Friend Request (2017), and the Value of Committing to Your Gimmick

The recent German horror import Friend Request was always going to suffer unfavorable comparisons to its found footage American predecessor, Unfriended. Not only was the film originally titled Unfriend in its German release, but it also follows a plot about a group of morally flawed teens who are hunted through social media from beyond the grave by the vengeful ghost of a peer they bullied into suicide, just like in Unfriended. Although it generally has been met with shitty reviews and an ocean of eyerolls, I quite enjoyed Friend Request as a modern slice of digital schlock. It’s in so many ways a conventional horror film that just happens to graft itself onto themes of social media-era technophobia, but those are two aesthetics I generally have a fun time with, so the proposition of that formula isn’t such a raw deal for me. The film’s comparisons to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, did the film no favors, however. By stripping Unfriended of its defining found footage gimmick & applying its same story to a more formulaic horror aesthetic, Friend Request illustrates just how silly & ineffective that Blumhouse-produced modern classic could have been if mishandled. You can’t fully appreciate the tonal miracle of Unfriended‘s social media horror achievements until you see the film cheapened by Friend Request, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as committed to their shared gimmick.

The thing I love most about social media horror & thrillers of the 2010s is the way they document the mundane details of what modern communication actually looks like. Unfriended‘s structure as an 80 minute “real time” conversation via Skype, framed from the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop, could not be a more perfect vessel for that kind of internet-age time capsule. An unseen laptop operator clicks from program to program (Facebook, Skype, music players, meme generators, creepypasta forums, Chat Roulette, etc.), simulating the exact experience of communicating in a groupchat circa 2014 (give or take a murderous ghost). Friend Request is much looser in its social media documentation. Before its various kill scenes start bloodying up the screen, the film does pay a lot of attention to what scrolling through a “Facebook” timeline looks like (it’s actually a generic knockoff of Facebook, but the effect is the same). The plot is advanced through timeline-scrolling montage, with attention paid to mundane functions like cover photos, “liking,” “friending,” etc. When the killer Facebook ghost starts tormenting her main victim with video posts of their friends’ suicides, the film also lingers on details like error messages, deleting posts, disabling accounts, etc. The traditional ghost story narrative structure of the film (as opposed to Unfriended‘s found footage structure) prevents it from capturing too much of the 2010s social media zeitgeist past that, though, as only a few stray details can make it to the screen between kills.

Fully committing to the social media gimmick does more to distinguish Unfriended from Friend Request than just in terms of memorable novelty & capturing a cultural time capsule; it also makes for a genuinely eerie movie-watching experience for the audience. Watching a story unfold on a laptop screen feels real to our own experience browsing the internet (whether or not we’re idiot teen bullies who deserve to be murdered by a vengeful ghost). This verisimilitude extends to the frustration of pop-up ads, lagging, and desire to control the mouse cursor ourselves in a way that builds genuine tension between each supernatural kill. Stripped of that gimmick, Friend Request struggles to find ways to make the 2010s social media experience scary. Instead, it looks to generic, haunted house-setting horror movie scares to build that tension, constructing its kills around the mirrors, baby doll parts, woodland settings, and swarming bugs we’ve seen so many times before. Without that tension, the movie’s technophobic scares amount to something much sillier than what the (playful, but effective) kills that Unfriended achieves. When the Facebook ghost is revealed to be employing “demonic” code that transcends our 1’s & 0’s or when the laptops themselves are designated as being evil, dark magic objects that must be destroyed, the film can only be appreciated as a goof. Thankfully, it knows how silly it’s being and makes room for lines like “Unfriend the dead bitch!” in its porn-tier dialogue.

Friend Request isn’t completely devoid of fresh contributions to the social media horror genre. Its criticism of the way we curate the image of our lives & are fake-polite to strangers for attention online isn’t anything new, but I did find some fascinating detail in the way it overlaid images of characters’ faces in their device screens along with their timeline scrolls, as well as the way it made the concept of having absolutely zero friends on an outline platform seem eerie & bizarre. Mostly, though, the film is fun as a campy, internet-age lark and an illustration of just how well-mannered Unfriended‘s own social media horror aesthetic is handled. Unfriended‘s full commitment to its found footage social media gimmick is more impressive in terms of craft, more useful in terms of cultural documentation, and more effective in terms of delivering traditional horror scares through fresh, innovative devices. I can only recommend Friend Request as a delightfully dumb slice of internet age schlock. The more fully-committed Unfriended, on the other hand, is essential viewing, one of the more significant horror canon entries of our time.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet