Ethereal Technophobic Horrors of the Early 2000s: Suicide Club (2002) & FearDotCom (2002)

One of my pet favorite subjects in horror cinema is the evils of technology. I’m especially tickled by internet-age technophobia, which makes me more of a sucker for titles like Nerve, Sickhouse, and #horror than most audiences tend to be. This might help explain how I made two technophobic horror selections for our Movie of the Month conversations in a row, Unfriended & Suicide Club, without even noticing the pattern until it was too late. As a pair, the two films do represent the pinnacle of the subgenre to me, though, especially in the way they simultaneously feel like a part of a cultural trend and standouts among their contemporaries. Unfriended, for its part, is a mainstream found footage horror that doesn’t stray much from the modern, Blumhouse style of dirt cheap genre filmmaking, but looks like the technophobic horror Citizen Kane when compared to its German-produced contemporary, Friend Request. It’s hard to believe with a film so aggressively bizarre, but Suicide Club was part of a trend as well, riding the technology-obsessed J-Horror wave that followed in the wake of the breakout success of Ringu & its American remake, The Ring. That tagalong formula of applying Ringu’s technophobic horror to early 00s internet culture did little to limit madman Sion Sono’s imagination, though; I’d even argue that Suicide Club far surpasses the creative heights of the haunted VHS J-horror film that helped inspire it. For a sharp point of contrast to see just how imaginative that ambitious deviation was, you need to only look to its mainstream American contemporaries that similarly adapted The Ring’s technophobic aesthetic to the Evils of the Internet. One German-American coproduction in particular feels exactly like the Friend Request equivalent to Suicide Club’s Unfriended – its dumb, ugly cousin.

2002’s FearDotCom is, objectively speaking, a terrible film. I’m still incurably tickled by it. Much like the bewildered cop who can’t crack the mystery of a haunted, suicide-inspiring website in Suicide Club, Stephen Dorff stars as an NYC detective struggling to solve the mystery of a haunted website that kills its visitors with Ebola-like symptoms after 48 hours of exposure (not unlike The Ring’s one-week cycle). The film arrived during mainstream horror’s horrendous nu-metal/torture porn period, so its plot mostly amounts to a Flash Art animation take on Videodrome, where an Internet Ghost infects viewers who watch torture for pleasure and attempts beyond-the-grave revenge on the evil doctor who killed her. Once Dorff & his supermodel Health Inspector sidekick (Natascha McElhone) accept the reality of the internet ghost & their dwindling 48 hours of relative good health, their focus shifts to taking down this wicked torture-doctor (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) at the industrial hideout where he webcasts his evil deeds. The movie is narratively convoluted, technically inept for a mainstream production, and laughably awkward in its poorly written, weirdly dubbed dialogue. Worse yet, it’s outright morally vile in the way it sensually frames dead & dying women’s bodies as if it were softcore pornography for teenage nu-metal shitheads (something I was personally guilty of being in 2002, sadly). Women strapped to torture devices with just their nipples covered by the leather belts; women jumping out of windows only for their bodies to appear postured for fashion model shoots upon impact; women stabbed to death to German language nu-metal as if in a music video: FearDotCom’s greatest sin is that it’s misogynist trash. It’s also hilarious trash, though, especially in its ponderings on “the secret soul of the internet,” flash art ghosts, furiously scribbled 1’s & 0’s, and cheap camcorder digital grain. You probably have to be a huge fan of ludicrous, internet-obsessed horror to get past its ugly soul and enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s a deeply silly movie that only becomes more peculiar with time.

For all its blatant, mainstream modes of horror filmmaking, FearDotCom occasionally reaches for the ethereal weirdness of Suicide Club’s similar internet-horror preoccupation. While Suicide Club provokes its audience with existential questions like “What’s your connection to yourself? Are you connected to you?,” FearDotCom attempts a similar mysterious air, but (as to be expected) does a much less impressive job of it. The torture-doctor rambles to his latest victim, “The internet offers birth, sex, commerce, seduction, proselytizing, politics, posturing. Death is a logical component.” What the fuck does that mean? Granted, the meaning of the “If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself?” line of questioning in Suicide Club is equally difficult to pin down, but it at least raises further questions & provokes thought, whereas the empty Internet philosophy of FearDotCom doesn’t linger in the mind at all. The film’s nightmare montage imagery of bugs, camcorders, albino children at play, and abandoned nuclear stacks also attempt a fractured narrative similar Sion Sono’s hyperactive vison in Suicide Club, but amounts to little substantive effect as a gestalt. Sono also had the good sense of making his (thankfully fewer) scenes of violence against women repugnant & difficult to watch, as opposed to the seductive gore & torture in FearDotCom that was seemingly aimed directly at misguided teen boners. The most essential difference may be that Sono actually had something to say about the erosion of self-identity & meaningful engagement with the physical world in the digital age, as ethereal as that point may have been, while FearDotCom merely used early 00s internet culture as a colorful backdrop for what was then by-the-numbers mainstream horror filmmaking. Either way, they both used the ethereal nature of the internet to detach their narratives from real world logic, both to entertaining effect (even if entertaining for vastly different reasons).

If you want a glimpse of how cheap & absurdly mishandled FearDotCom’s version of supernatural, technophobic horror is without actually having to, you know, watch the movie, just visit the film’s (NSFW) website. With the tagline, “What to see a killer website?” and an interactive DVD menu that directs you to visit Feardotcom.com, you’d think that Universal Pictures would bother to renew those domain rights into perpetuity. Instead, the address seems to be in use by a scammy advertisement for a British escort service. Meanwhile, the actual fear.com is currently a dummy website that reminds visitors that Donald Trump only has a 26.8% chance of winning the 2017 presidential election (there’s still hope!). This is a major studio production that has been abandoned by its major studio, now only to be found in used DVD stacks in New Orleans area thrift stores (that’s where I found my copy anyway). By contrast, Suicide Club is equally hyperkinetic & willing to come off as silly (especially in its J-Pop music videos and declarations like “I’m Charlie Manson of the Information Age!”), but is much more confident & purposeful, maintaining its reputation as a hidden gem art film from a prolific auteur. Just as I enjoyed the Facebook witchcraft idiocy of Friend Request, but found it only made Unfriended’s merits clearer in juxtaposition, I feel like the glaring faults of FearDotCom are just as entertaining for their own sake as they are illustrative of what makes Suicide Club a superior film. Both works may have been riding a technophobic horror wave in the wake of Ringu/The Ring, but their accomplishments within that aesthetic paradigm are remarkably disparate. Just compare the FearDotCom.com web address to maru.ne.jp from Suicide Club to make that distinction even clearer. The Suicide Club website has also lapsed out of studio control, but is operated by a respectable-seeming Japanese communications technology firm, with no references to British escorts or Donald Trump or anything.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Somewhere (2010)

It took watching Sofia Coppola’s worst movie to help me recognize that she’s one of my favorite working directors. Somewhere is a lot like Lost in Translation in the way it allows Coppola to indulge at length in her worst narrative tendencies, mainly her obsession with the ennui of the have-it-all elite. Also like Lost in Translation, Somewhere often overcomes that narrative hurdle in the pure pleasure of its value as a sensory experience, demonstrating the same intoxicating visual & tonal meticulousness that helps distinguish her more thematically rich works (Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides, and The Beguiled are my holy trinity). This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.

Stephen Dorff stars as a movie star far above Stephen Dorff’s pay grade. His Tom Cruise-level fame as an action star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, as he finds his life spent lazing about L.A.’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel to be an unfulfilling drag. Pushing the disheveled t-shirt & jeans look of a nothing-to-lose movie star to the point of appearing homeless, he still finds beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet while performing simple tasks like picking up the morning paper or taking a phone call on the balcony. The already blatant emptiness of his lazy, hotel room party lifestyle is further put into perspective by the unexpected arrival for his young daughter, played by Elle Fanning. The simple act of sharing time with her (even time wasted playing Guitar Hero or watching her figure skating lessons) changes him for the better, recontextualizing his lazing-about hedonism. Sofia Coppola is no stranger to depicting boredom & ennui; they’re among her favorite pet subjects. Somewhere (again, not unlike Lost in Translation) offers a glimpse at how these emotional experiences (or lack thereof) can mean more and transform into something sweetly beautiful when you share them with someone you care about. It’s not a grand, paradigm-shifting statement, but it is a rewarding, intimate one.

Since boredom & ennui aren’t exactly the most kinetic of cinematic topics, most of Somewhere’s strengths are in the power of individual moments & images. Coppola reportedly strung together the film’s narrative based on her own childhood spent exploring fringe, transient Hollywood spaces like Chateau Marmont (along with the real-life experiences of young Hollywood children she knows in the 2010s) and you can feel that authenticity in the specificity of her imagery & the film’s many intimate exchanges, often between strangers. Mimed underwater tea parties, Foo Fighters-scored strip teases, ungodly piles of gelato, the world’s laziest gesture of unenthused cunnilingus: many might argue that Somewhere doesn’t amount to much, but there’s no denying that meticulous care went into its visual craft & small moments of human interaction. Coppola posits the Marmont as a realm outside of space & time, one only made more bizarre by the mix of celebrities, fashion models, and sex works that drift through its halls. And since the film is very light on dialogue for long, quiet stretches, the way those images shape the story being told can be surprisingly, delicately deft. For instance, the way a slow zoom-in on a claustrophobic plaster cast session matches Dorff’s suffocating loneliness early in the film contrasts wonderfully with the long, revitalizing inhale of a slow zoom-out of him sunbathing poolside with his daughter late in the runtime. Whether that exact contrast was Coppola’s intent or not, she is at least smart enough to allow enough distance for her audience to be able to draw those kinds of connections among her potent, intimate images.

Somewhere might only rank among my least favorite Coppola’s because it’s light on the aspects of her work I personally adore the most. I find her quiet fixation on the emptiness of wealth & excess works best in harsh contrast with an eccentrically loud backdrop, which draws me more to works like Marie Antoinette & The Bling Ring. I also highly value her power as a voice with mainstream notoriety & wide distribution who makes immersively feminine works the likes of which we usually only see in no budget festival releases. As Stephen Dorff’s existential crisis commands most of the runtime (as Bill Murray does in Lost in Translation), I’m not able to see as much of that distinctive voice here as I am in works like The Beguiled & The Virgin Suicides. Still, there’s enough sweetness in the onscreen relationship between Dorff & Fanning (who has become one of my favorite young actors thanks to her turns in The Neon Demon & 20th Century Women) and enough contemplative beauty in the film’s vestiges of excess imagery that I find the experience worthwhile when considered as a whole. Sofia Coppola at her worst is still better than most slow-drift ennui directors at their best. If Somewhere is a low point in her catalog, she deserves credit for having one of the best active resumes around.

-Brandon Ledet