In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaslash (2020)

Anyone who’s deathly allergic to “bad”-on-purpose, winking-at-the-camera horror novelties like Zombeavers, Sharknado, or Hobo with a Shotgun should beware this review, because I’m about to be a lot kinder to the genre than it likely deserves.

Aquaslash is a retro novelty slasher about a killer waterpark slide that’s rigged with giant blades to chop idiot teens into pieces. The film is built entirely around setting up & executing that singular gore gag, so it has to save all of its bloodbath payoffs for the final 20 minutes. It’s cheap, it’s mean, it’s silly and, at only 70min in length, it barely registers as an actual movie. I still found myself ultimately having a great time with it despite my better judgement, though, which mostly came down to the film’s one saving grace: its central waterslide kill gimmick. The movie may be embarrassingly thin, absurdly insincere, and entirely reliant on one idea, but that idea is so impressively stupid and well-executed that it’s somehow worth the effort it takes to get there.

The setup to this film feels like any other post-Asylum exercise in ironic camp horror, but the follow-through is refreshingly sleazy in that context. Recent graduates from the fictional Valley Hills High School celebrate with a wild party weekend at the (equally goofily named) Wet Valley Water Park. This celebration is explained to be a tradition dating back to the 1980s, which allows the film to play around with Totally 80s™ nostalgia clichés in its 50-minute lead up to the waterslide gore promised in the title. That sounds like a mood-ruiner in the abstract, and it sometimes is when it comes to forced nostalgia signifiers like an abysmally shitty rock cover of Cory Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.” However, it at least fully embraces the inherent sleaze of 80s slasher in a way that feels shockingly out of place in this kind of winking-at-the-camera novelty.

This is maybe the most enthusiastically committed illustration of Straight Guy™ sexuality I’ve seen since the hair metal music video was king. Young women’s bikini-clad breasts are used as bouncing eye-distractors, cocaine-sniffing surfaces, and splash zones for blacklight neon splooge – anything (within reason) they can get away with doing to titties to fill time before it can pull the trigger on the last-minute gore. That indulgence would be offensive if it weren’t so cornily outdated in a way that felt genuinely retro. As is, it’s overtly sexist the way an old stack of Playboys can be: quaintly so.

Bikini Babes & inane teenage drama are plentiful here; the gore is something you have to work for. The killer waterslide gag itself is truly incredible, though, and I believe the movie is short & harmless enough to get away with the delay. More importantly, it genuinely commits to the grotesque sleaze of the era it’s nostalgic for, as opposed to the Asylum style of retro novelty filmmaking that would rather pave over those unpleasantries with referential jokes & Z-list celebrity stunt casting. The sex is actually vulgar; the practical-effects violence is grotesque. All in all, this might be the best possible version of this kind of “bad”-on-purpose novelty that gives away its one original idea in its trailer & poster. My only major complaint, really, is that it should have been titled Slaughterpark.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Slumber Party (1988)

One of the most surprising twists of the extremely twisty documentary Shirkers was how much of its narrative involved our home city, New Orleans. For a movie with a main conflict centered in early-90s Singapore, an alarming amount of its third act was filmed around the corner from my house just a couple years ago. This tangent of local tourism was inspired by the dastardly villain of Shirkers, Georges Cardona, having once resided here as a hostile indie cinema saboteur, the same role he would later play in Singapore. However, instead of stealing & hoarding the entirety of a D.I.Y. film production the way he would later leave his mark on Shirkers, Cardona just “lost” a small portion of the feature film he made with buddies in New Orleans. Forming a local film collective called Light House Media Center with his indie cinema peers, Cardona volunteered as the crew’s cinematographer on their “graduate” project: a feature titled The Last Slumber Party. There’s no full-length documentary on The Last Slumber Party’s troubled production like there is for Shirkers, for a couple reasons: Cardona merely sabotaged a small portion of the film’s negative, so, unlike Shirkers, it was still able to be released as a “finished” product. Also unlike with Shirkers, The Last Slumber Party is so uninspired as a microbudget genre picture that it holds practically zero cultural significance. That is, unless (like me) you live in New Orleans and have an embarrassing fondness for dirt-cheap regional slashers.

There aren’t many documentarian glimpses of late-80s New Orleans to be found in The Last Slumber Party. Besides one scene shot in a high school class room, one in a hospital, and one at a nighttime bus stop, most of the film is contained in a single suburban home in Metairie, just west of the city. The house is very Metairie once you get a sense of its aesthetic (i.e. it has no aesthetic) and the lead Final Girl wears an oversized LSU jersey as a nightgown throughout the picture, but otherwise there isn’t much that distinguishes the film as South East Louisiana regional cinema. Mostly, The Last Slumber Party is a sub-Slumber Party Massacre (and maybe even sub-Sorority House Massacre) shot-on-video slasher cheapie that faithfully follows the tropes & structure of its sleepover-massacre genre without a hint of satire. Three high school hotties invite boys & booze into their unchaperoned slumber party, only to have the festivities ruined by a crazed serial killer. Sound at all familiar? In this case, the escaped mental patient/masked murderer is dressed in a surgeon’s costume and played by the film’s director, Stephen Tyler, who you can see interviewed at length in Shirkers about his time as a friend & collaborator of Georges Cardona’s. The film’s one special effect is a prop scalpel he brandishes that squirts blood as he draws it across his victims’ necks, giving the appearance of slit throats (more or less). It’s a very gentle way of murdering young, promiscuous teens, which is actually fairly indicative of the gentle hand the film takes with its by-the-numbers genre beats in general.

The escaped convict vs. wayward teens slasher is spiritually grotesque, exploitative genre territory when it’s played straight (see: Slumber Party Massacre III), which makes it so weird that The Last Slumber Party feels so thoroughly wholesome. Its blood-squirting scalpel rig is about as tame of a source of gore as you can imagine. When teens make-out or shower, the camera shies away from exploiting the opportunity for nudity. The entire production, right down to Tyler’s crazed wide-eyed stare as the killer, feels like friends throwing a party & filming their goof-arounds, as opposed to terrorizing or arousing the audience with flesh & blood. It’s like the suburban Metairie Bro equivalent of a Matt Farley picture in that way – oddly charming in its disinterest in indulging in the nastier impulses of its genre. Also like with Matt Farley, this film’s most entertaining moments are to be found in its overwritten, underperformed dialogue. Who needs tits & gore when you can hear non-professionals deliver lines like “I’m going to the kitchen to munch out,” “What’s this? Stereo telephones?” and “Let’s go rustle up some menfolk!”? The surgeon-mask killer may be oddly wholesome in his de-sexed, goreless murders of both girls & boys, but the weirdly penned dialogue often echoes the seething anger of Sleepaway Camp, The Pit, and other weirdly hostile oddities. Teen lovers combatively refer to each other as “Whore,” “Asshole,” “Stupid Bitch,” and “Queer Bait,” as pet names. They bray “I’m not taking any more of this shit” at top volume into empty rooms. There isn’t an ounce of genuine humanity in that behavior and the “actors” seem to know exactly how silly they’re coming across. The Last Slumber Party is essentially a game of slasher movie dress-up.

If you want a fun, over-the-top slasher with cartoonish characters dancing to early MTV jams, having horned-up pillow fights, and being torn apart in outrageous spectacles of practical effects gore, watch Slumber Party Massacre II. The pleasures of The Last Slumber Party are more muted. Its friends-putting-on-a-show hangout vibe is adorably dorky. It dialogue is absurdly awkward. The logic & length of its final twenty minutes pushes past excruciating dullness to reach something that can only be described as sublimely stupid. Most importantly, it never stops being weird throughout that someone as menacing & bizarre as Georges Cardona was involved with something so innocuous, so wholesome, and frankly, so complete. Every time the camera pans in an interesting way or frames a character in a window or mirror, you’re reminded of the bizarro presence of cinematographer Georges Cardona, who would soon move on to derail the lives of three teen girls in Singapore while his fellow Lighthouse Media “graduates” got jobs on the crew of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The Last Slumber Party is worth a look as Shirkers supplementary material and as a local relic, but I doubt it has much value outside those contexts. Now excuse me while I go to the kitchen to munch out.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

In 2008, which was my senior year of high school, a few friends and I rushed to the local movie theater to see The Strangers. This was during a time where cable television reigned supreme, so the movie’s trailer was constantly playing during commercial breaks. I don’t recall much about the film, since I haven’t seen it since its theatrical release. All I remember is that it was very creepy and starred Liv Tyler. Here we are ten years later, and the film’s sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, has been released.

There isn’t a whole lot of buzz surrounding The Strangers: Prey at Night (unlike its predecessor). The only reason I was drawn to see it is because I was in the mood to see a spooky movie, and it was the only horror film in theaters. I didn’t have high expectations going in, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed a good bit of the film.

Prey at Night follows the basic home-invasion horror movie formula, but instead of a crew of scantily clad women, the “prey” is a family going through a rough patch. Bailee Madison plays a slightly out-of-control teenager (complete with a Ramones t-shirt and a plaid shirt tied around her waist) named Kinsey, who is being sent to boarding school by her parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson). Before she makes the big move, her parents, along with her brother (Lewis Pullman), take her on a trip to splendid little trailer park campground by a lake. They arrive in the dead of night, and there’s literally no one at the campground because it’s off-season. Within ten minutes of their arrival, the doll-faced killer from the first film gets things started, and the rest of the “Strangers” crew gradually start to appear in the campground.

It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of violent encounters as the family is basically hunted by a crew of bat-shit crazy killers, but there’s something quite special about a few of them. The “Stranger” with a burlap sack mask, who seems to be the father figure of the crew, has an obsession with 80s pop music. During a scene where he is chasing a severely injured Kinsey through the campground, Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” began booming through the theater’s speaker system, and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. I hate being the douchebag in the theater that laughs during horror movies, but I just couldn’t help myself. However, my favorite scene of all was one that involves a stabbing in a pool surrounded with trashy neon lights while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is blaring through an outdoor sound system. All in all, The Strangers: Prey at Night is just another garbage horror movie, but it’s worth watching for the bloody 80s pop song scenes.

-Britnee Lombas

Happy Death Day (2017)

As promised in its (brilliant) advertising, Happy Death Day‘s defining gimmick is dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher. What the ads don’t convey, however, is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that invaded the horror genre in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s general atmosphere of a late 90s slasher relic extends beyond its shithead college students’ slut-shaming, carb-counting, disability/rape/queer sexuality-mocking ways to inform even its basic approach to horror. Its depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize. Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos. It surprisingly owes just as much to big budget, post-Scream slashers (and maybe even their Scary Movie spoofs) for its tonal DNA as it does to the timeline loop plot of Groundhog Day.

Not only does the sorority girl victim at the film’s center have to relive the day of her murder on an endless loop, she begins that day hungover & stumbling home from a drunken hookup’s dorm room. Much like Bill Murray’s bitter anti-hero in Groundhog Day, she’s a mean, selfish brat with an ever-growing list of enemies she pettily steps over as a sorority bully caricature. Her ethical shortcomings both set up a plot progression where she incrementally becomes a better person throughout the film and allow for a long list of potential suspects who might want her dead. Is the killer one of her socially-slighted sorority sisters?  One of her ghosted sexual partners or their girlfriends/wives? The father whose phone calls she continually ignores in each loop? A total stranger? Unraveling the paranormal mystery of who repeatedly murders this deeply flawed, but gradually improving sorority monster on her birthday is obviously a significant part of what makes the movie a dumb, fun time. Happy Death Day eventually adds accumulative stakes to its resettable scenario, but for the most part the protagonist enjoys a kind of supernatural privilege in her time loop immortality that allows her to treat her own life as a kind of consequence-free playground. Of course, it’s a repeatedly deadly playground that cyclically concludes with a violent murder by the hands of a masked killer, but it’s ultimately all in good fun.

Like with most dumb fun slashers, the ideal audience for Happy Death Day might be dark-humored teens just slightly younger than the college campus caricatures that populate the film. As with his bro-minded horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, director Christopher B. Landon has the sensibilities of a teenage boy who just watched Army of Darkness for the first time. As an adult, Happy Death Day‘s mean teen humor can sometimes land a little awkwardly, as can its romantic subplot about a sorority hottie becoming a “better” person by falling in love with a horror nerd with They Live! & Repo Man posters on his dorm room wall instead of the meathead bozos she usually bangs (not to mention the way it congratulates him for not raping her after a night of hard-drinking, the bare minimum of human decency). That mentality feels especially gross right now, given current conversations about the gender politics shortcomings of genre film nerd culture institutions like Ain’t It Cool News, Fantastic Fest, and Alamo Drafthouse. A softer, less discerning teen mind searching only for a fun gimmick & memorable kills is a lot less likely to get hung up on those details. The film’s college campus setting & campus life caricatures play directly to that demographic as well, especially when they include images like frat paddles, school mascots, bongs, and sorority houses in their kill scenes. You even get the sense that an earlier draft of the script might have been titled Monday the 18th (the date that endlessly repeats) as a nod to its direct, Jason Voorhees-style appeal to teenage audiences.

Even more surprising than Happy Death Day‘s adherence to a nü metal 90s slasher aesthetic & mean girl sorority humor is its New Orleans setting. Watching the film just blocks away from its Loyola campus filming location was a surreal experience, one backed up by the tree moss & streetcars in the background and the school mascot/killer’s mask bearing a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) king cake baby mascot that seasonally appears at our local NBA games. I honestly fall a little too perfectly in the film’s target audience Venn diagram to offer an unbiased opinion: I was a teenage boy who grew up on post-Scream slashers; I consider Groundhog Day to be one of the best-written films of all time; I’m a lifelong New Orleans resident. I personally hit the full Happy Death Day demographic trifecta. Even being immersed in that perspective, I like to imagine that plenty of other people, especially 2010s teens, will have blast with the film. It’s not the clever, paradigm-shifting Groundhog Day reimagining of Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s still solidly entertaining as a dumb fun horror flick. It’s just one that admittedly focuses more on the dumb fun than it does on the horror.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew