Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

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Is the Unfriended Gimmick Growing Up or Going Stale?

It should be no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this site than I’m a massive fan of the 2015 found footage cyber-horror Unfriended. That Blumhouse production has become an exceptionally useful touchstone when describing my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, which exploits the average user’s vague understanding of the mechanics of the Internet for easy, eerie scares of the unknown. Shot from the POV of a laptop screen, where all images & sounds are generated by applications like Skype, Facebook, and Windows Media Player, operated by an unseen user, Unfriended is the epitome of the Evil Internet cyber-horror. Its full-on dedication to its commanding gimmick both creates an eerie recognition in its audience of what daily life online looks & feels like (give or take a vengeful computer-ghost) and preserves that cultural experience in a user interface time capsule in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare. As was inevitable, this once-fresh, of-the-moment laptop interface gimmick has since been assimilated into more consciously diluted works. For years, I’ve been taken with Unfriended-style documentation & exploitation of user interface horror in trashier genre fare: the way Sickhouse recreates The Blair Witch Project in Snapchat posts; the way Nerve turns online games like Pokémon Go into voyeuristic horror shows; the way #horror finds unexpected terror in the sugary inanity of emojis & CandyCrush, etc. These shamelessly trashy tactics have shown no sign of slowing down in the lower dregs of genre cinema, but 2018 has seen a major change to the Evil Internet user interface horror that I was dreading: my preciously guarded subgenre is gradually going mainstream.

Curiously enough, you can detect this dilution of the Unfriended gimmick even in Unfriended 2: Dark Web, the film’s recent sequel. The usual tactic of sequels to low-budget, high concept horror curios is to avoid redundancy by pushing the original premise to a greater extreme (even if only in extremity of gore). Dark Web shies away from that challenge and instead makes its central conceit more palatable for the average moviegoer. Like in the first Unfriended film, a group of online teens in a shared Skype chat are terrorized by forces beyond their control, held hostage before their monitors at the threat of death. Instead of an all-powerful computer ghost threatening their lives, however, the kids of Dark Web are tormented by a vast network of powerful lurkers on the dark net – real life, evil reprobates who can seemingly hack into anything electronic to dispose of their victims. In any other context, that would be a preposterous, over-the-top premise for a horror film. As a follow-up to the computer ghost hauntings of the first Unfriended film, however, it feels like a conscious toning down of a supernatural conceit some audiences felt went too far. Dark Web is likely a far better gateway film to appreciating the gimmicky cyber-horror genre as a result, but its dilution of the Unfriended premise’s supernatural horror makes it less distinct or useful as an isolated example of that genre. The first Unfriended bests its sequel in its audacity to reach beyond the real-life limitations of the internet by melding the technological with the supernatural. In its own references to the dark net’s ties to ancient mythology and in its villains’ deployment of impossible identity-obscuring glitch software, Dark Web teases notes of supernatural forces at work in its online hostage crisis, but those aspects of the conflict mostly amount to go-nowhere intimidation tactics used by its in-the-flesh cyber-criminals. It’s almost as if the movie were too embarrassed to fully commit to those supernatural conceits, and it feels all the weaker for it.

Any nitpicking complaints I may have about Unfriended: Dark Web are likely a result of my too-high personal esteem for the genre territory it echoes without expansion or evolution. Ultimately, it’s a solid Evil Internet technohorror that might even be a boon for the genre in its potential to reel in new fans. I cannot say the same for the recent hit cyberthriller Searching, which outright apologizes for the trashiness of the user interface horror as a concept in its (successful) bid to reach a wide audience. In Searching, John Cho plays a single, widower father using context clues from his missing daughter’s laptop to investigate her disappearance. The film uses the same tactics & efforts pioneered in Unfriended to tell its Lifetime Original-ready story, but with an added layer of cowardice. Afraid to allow the audience to search for their own point of focus as its twisty story unfolds, the film directs the eye by zooming in to make active cursors & text boxes take up the entire screen, as if it were worried that the grandma in the back of the theater’s eyesight would prevent her from following along. This affords the film the patina of a TV commercial for an operating system, which isn’t surprising given director Aneesh Chaganty’s background as a tech bro Google employee. The film’s cowardice extends far beyond its advertising aesthetic & lack of commitment to its user interface gimmick too (which it also cheats on by incorporating news footage & Google Maps graphics). Searching is a thriller that’s afraid of danger. It teases threats of what parents fear their kids might be up to online (gambling, hiding sexual affairs, drug trade, secret identities) but then defangs each danger seconds after introducing them to reinforce that “The kids are alright” & the Internet is a tool for Good just as much as it is a tool for Evil (if not more so). This should be a genre that preys on the eeriness of life online, but here plays like a tech-friendly advertisement. It’s cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical fearmongering by turning it into a safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Basically, it’s Unfriended for the corniest of suburban parents, an embarrassment to the user-interface cyberthriller – and its being met with the greatest praise the genre has seen to date.

I’m not entirely against Unfriended user interface horrors evolving & maturing in less gimmicky, more respectable corners of indie cinema. It’s a mode of filmmaking I believe could be useful in any modern-set film’s toolkit, as evidenced by recent films like Eighth Grade & Ingrid Goes West that depict troubled protagonist’s emotional unraveling through their immersion in Instagram feeds. The Instagram scroll set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in Eighth Grade is especially striking, layering imagery into a beautifully eerie cyber psychedelia that stands out as one of the year’s most distinct cinematic Moments. That Instagram immersion & the film’s mood-setting YouTube tutorial videos don’t comprise the entirety of Eighth Grade’s visual or emotional substance, but rather serve as just one tool in its arsenal, ready to be deployed when helpful. It’s in this way that trashier genre fare like Unfriended has become useful in its influence. It was once gauche to heavily incorporate user interface imagery in a proper movie, but the trash-horror soldiers have since laid the groundwork at the frontlines to normalize & develop that tactic. For Eighth Grade or Ingrid Goes West to incorporate that imagery into less genre-faithful narratives means the tactic is maturing in a useful, rewarding way that can only benefit the future of modernist cinema. What’s much less useful is when a film like Searching dilutes Unfriended’s exact tactics at feature length with wide-audience friendly sappiness stripping the original work of its riskier gambles to make its gimmick more palatable. Even Unfriended: Dark Web is guilty of this dilution, although to a lesser extent. By normalizing the Unfriended gimmick, they’re making it less distinct & notable, running the risk of allowing new, exciting cinematic territory to grow stale in familiarity, rather than to evolve the way it has in films like Eighth Grade.

My biggest fear is that all this griping about the future of highly specific genre I unabashedly love is likening me to one of those joyless Star Wars “fans” complaining about that series’ recent batch of sequels because of what they didn’t do instead of celebrating them for what they are. After all, there are still plenty of gimmicky, high-concept cyber-horrors being released all the time. Snapchat filters were recently given the horror treatment in this year’s Truth or Dare; Facebook timeless were made out to be spooky hell-rides in last year’s Friend Request; Assassination Nation just dug into the stomach-turning nausea of private data leaks just a few weeks ago; and smaller, cheaper titles like Selfie from Hell hit VOD so frequently I can’t even keep up with them. Still, I can’t help but have complicated feelings about the ways the Unfriended gimmick is being assimilated into more respectable, higher profile releases to wider critical success. It warms my technophobic heart to recognize its influence on works like Eighth Grade, only to have my heat broken when its dilution & normalization in cowardly works like Searching lead to critical praise that implies it was a broken gimmick that has since been “fixed” through a tonal sobriety. If Unfriended weren’t extremely preposterous & attention-grabbing its influence would have never leaked this far into the ether in the first place; all Searching is doing is lazily reaping the benefits. I shouldn’t complain too loudly, as that film’s critical & financial success can only mean good things for the further production of a genre I can’t help but love. I just worry that its more normalized, safer tones will risk running the gimmick stale, when it should be mutating into new, exciting possibilities in modern filmmaking aesthetics.

-Brandon Ledet

Assassination Nation (2018)

In a single month I’ve seen three highly divisive theatrical releases that appear in their advertising to be fun, over-the-top parties, but are actually grueling descents into the depths of human cruelty & misery: Mandy, BlacKkKlansman, and now Assassination Nation. What’s challenging about that third title is how long it waits to reveal its true nature as an ugly, unforgiving portrait of modernity. The earliest stretch of Assassination Nation feels as if it were a conscious effort to update the Heathers style of teen-girl black comedy for a new generation – the same way that titles like Jawbreakers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Mean Girls, and The Edge of Seventeen have in the past. What most Heathers descendants miss, however, is how genuinely shocking that film, which glibly joked at length about a teen suicide epidemic, would have been in its late-80s cultural context. Heathers is wildly funny, but it’s also genuinely upsetting in its amoral grotesqueries. Assassination Nation updates that dynamic by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a very public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work. It just asks a larger stretch of initial adjustment than you might expect – and even then its cruelty & misery never feel entirely comfortable, nor should they.

This isn’t a film with a plot so much as one with a premise. Assassination Nation reimagines the Salem Witch Trials for the Internet Age by filtering them through the user-interface cyberthiller horrors of Unfriended & the politicized home invasion thriller tones/Anonymous worship of The Purge. Four high school teens are unfairly accused of creating social chaos at the center of this tale, a conflict instigated by massive leaks of private citizens’ data on the Internet. Caught between conflicting demands of desire, control, disapproval, anger, and lust from the men in their lives (boyfriends, peers, authority figures, total strangers), these young women are given no room to exist in the public sphere without being targeted for perceived transgressions against proper femme behavior. When societal order breaks down and private online activity erupts into in-the-streets public violence, they suffer the brunt of the blowback as outraged, hypocritical men’s #1 target – the same role young women filled in Salem’s historical atrocities. The war that emerges is framed as four teenage girls fighting an entire town of morally fascist men (to bloody death), but that image is clearly meant to be emblematic of America at large’s sexually repressed, self-righteous war on all youthful femininity. By leaking private info from citizens’ laptops & smartphones, the film’s anonymous hacker is uprooting deeply ingrained, violently gendered shame – inspiring their targets to lash out in violence against a scapegoated social group that doesn’t deserve the blowback, but has historically received it anyway: young women. Like how this year’s The First Purge & BlacKkKlansman have examined America’s continued, blatant, public failures in its racial divides in the most unsubtle, uncomfortable terms possible, Assassination Nation does the same for our despicable handling of gender & sexuality. Its blatant confrontations of our sexual repression & gendered oppression are often miserable in their in-the-moment experience, but that feels like an honest reflection of where the country is right now in its cultural discussion of these topics.

My initial attraction to Assassination Nation was largely due to my undying love for technophobic cyberthrillers, especially ones willing to pull from the imagery of social media apps’ user-interfaces. The movie thankfully doesn’t shy away from that stylistic indulgence, finding plenty of eerie imagery in sexting, chain emails, Twitter rants, and WorldStar-style cellphone footage of psychical violence. Its greatest achievement to that end is an early party sequence collaged together in a triptych of vertical smartphone aspect rations, when that image is typically centered & letterboxed instead of tripled. For the most part, though, the film finds its Internet Age discomfort in the rhythms & dialect of online communication. This starts with the glib, callous Twitter humor of the opening act, as well as a long list of rapid-fire trigger warnings meant to scare off skeptical viewers who have no chance of ever getting on its wavelength (either for genuinely being triggered by its content or for finding its overall tone too obnoxious to stomach). What’s most impressive about the film’s technophobic finger-wagging is how it digs deeper than superficial concerns like social media addiction & curation of false online identity to explore less often discussed aspects of online culture: how the Internet is used as a cultural tool for misogyny and how online anonymity allows the average user to be loudly judgmental & self-righteous, but a leak of private digital information (photos, messages, porn search history) would reveal an entirely different reality of who we are as a culture. It’s easy to make glib jokes about a stranger’s private life online, but once public scrutiny is targeted at your own private data (especially the sexual variety) the mood immediately sours. As with all of life’s punishments & humanity’s cruelty, this is doubly true for women.

It would be misleading to say that the entirety of Assassination Nation is dour & devoid of fun. Twitter can be fun; it just turns ugly if you dwell there for too long or stumble into the wrong feeds. This film’s femme cynicism, Rainbow Shops fashion, music video aesthetics, and final moments of bloody revenge on The Patriarchy all find plentiful moments of pure genre cinema pleasure. Even its third-act home invasion sequence, which pushes its ugly, gendered violence into its most explicit extremes, can be uncomfortably pleasurable to watch in appreciation for the craftsmanship of its staging (pushing the 360° robbery-exterior of Spring Breakers to a new level of technical indulgence). Its cumulative effect is more sickening than humorous, however, matching the blunt, unsettled political climate of the world outside in its own unsubtle, confrontational terms. Besides maybe Revenge, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film match the extremity of its gender politics exploration this year, something that feels just as necessary & cathartic as it is unsettling. It’s a topic that’s now inextricable from the tones & tactics of modern life online, something the film was smart to recognize & tackle head-on. Its overall spirit is prankish & prone to bleak humor, but Assassination Nation is less of a comedy than it is a violent uprooting of cultural misogyny & sexual repression in the Internet Age.

-Brandon Ledet

Perfect Blue (1997)

The debut feature of tragically-deceased Japanese animator Satohi Kon (Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) is taking a 20th anniversary victory lap in digital restoration, so I had the unexpected opportunity to see it for the first time in a theatrical setting. What a fucked-up delight! Because Paprika is one of the few anime films I’ve watched repeatedly over years of admiration & study, I was somewhat prepared for the sugary pop psychedelia & loopy nightmare logic Satoshi Kon established in this predecessor. What I did not expect going in blind was that the film would fit so comfortably within my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, given that it arrived so early in the development of online culture. The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the Unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. I can only imagine that effect was even greater in 1997, when a global network of intercomputer communication felt like a man-made miracle. Perfect Blue not only exploits the eeriness of that brand-new unknown by reflecting it in the similar subliminal space of a bad dream & an unraveling mind, but it’s also prescient of the Internet’s worst functions as a future real-world evil – both as a tool for misogynist bullying & as a corrupter of personal identity. Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.

A female pop singer is pressured by her managers to leave her music career behind to pursue acting. This professional shift is coded as her public image growing up, leaving behind the girlish innocence of her pop idol persona to pursue a more adult, sexualized career. She lands a small role on a racy “Japanese psycho thriller” TV series (the kind of sensationalist drama that plays for high ratings on HBO in the 2010s), requiring her to perform increasingly sexualized acts for the camera, including participation a brutal rape scene. Pretending she’s okay with this career shift so she appears agreeable to her talent agency causes a rift inside herself, where her still-innocent inner voice (visualized as her former pop idol persona) screams out in dissent. Meanwhile, an online stalker blogs in first-person as her former self, reinforcing the bifurcation between her two personae. The pressures of her job & the online harassment amount to a fever pitch as she starts losing time and waking to find that the entertainment industry goons who pressured her into sexually compromising positions are being found systematically murdered. Her pop idol self, her TV show character, her dreams, and her false online persona all collectively unravel her sense of identity to the point where she can’t say for sure whether she is the mysterious murderer or even if the murders are actually happening. She can’t even answer basic questions like “Am I dreaming?” or “Am I alive?” with any confidence or certainty. Pressures from her pop music fans to remain an innocent child clash with the television industry’s pressures for her to expose her body & pretend to be a rape victim for commercial entertainment – two opposing, impossible standards only she suffers the consequences of as their target du jour. It’s no surprise that the internet is the primary tool of this misogynist cycle, as it’s only served that function more intensely in real life in the decades since.

Early on in Perfect Blue the protagonist receives a threatening fax from her stalker and the machine’s mechanical scrapes & hums mutate into an industrial pop score that overwhelms the soundtrack, heightening the eerie threat technology poses in her insular world. That’s when I knew I would be all-in for the movie’s technophobic feminist nightmare, which only became more rewarding the further it broke apart from reality to sink into the (literal & figurative) machines of misogyny. Like most well-regarded anime, Perfect Blue is technically impressive as a feat in traditional animation, fully utilizing its medium to achieve logic & imagery unattainable in live action cinema. The particulars of how it uses that medium to reflect the eeriness & artifice of the internet, nightmares, and the entertainment industry are a more rarified wonder, especially since it’s an effect that actually has something substantial to say about the exploitation & commodification of women in the public sphere. Perfect Blue can occasionally be super uncomfortable in its depictions of sexual assault, but at least in a way that’s relevant to those themes. Overall, it’s a strikingly beautiful, effectively creepy work of animated psych-horror, one that approximates the full danger & eeriness of the internet in a way that’s only since been matched by the likes of Suicide Club, Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror. I mean that as the highest of praise, as this is a genre I find consistently fascinating, but rarely this effectively scary. It’s worth noting too that the 20th anniversary digital transfer of the film has not seemed to sharpen, flatten, or distort its original appearance the way some digital “restorations” of animated classics have. Perfect Blue looked to me of the exact grainy, matte quality you’d expect an animated 90s movie to appear like on the big screen. Our relationship with the internet may have intensified drastically in the last 20 years, but Perfect Blue appears to remain untouched as a pristine, enduringly terrifying object – a beautiful technophobic nightmare worthy of continued discussion & preservation.

-Brandon Ledet

Searching (2018)

Something truly amazing is happening in Hollywood right now. There are currently two mainstream movies topping the charts that have something in common: they both star Asian-American actors. One is Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy that I have yet to see but am looking forward to watching. The other is Searching, a fantastic heartwarming thriller that I saw in theaters over the Labor Day weekend. Hollywood films that have predominately Asian-American casts tend to fall in the action genre, so having two non-action films with Asian-American leading actors (Crazy Rich Asians has a majority Asian-American cast) in theaters is historical moment.

John Cho is best known for his comic stoner roles in the Harold & Kumar and American Pie films, but he recently made a bold move by taking on the role of David Kim, a widowed father in Searching. Cho beautifully conveys the characteristics of a loving father, desperately trying to do his best to raise a teenage daughter while dealing with personal grief. I truly hope that Searching will open a new chapter in Cho’s career. One in which he takes on more dramatic roles, as it is something he does very well.

Searching is film that entirely takes place on electronic devices (FaceTime, YouTube videos, live streaming news, computer cameras, etc.), quite similar to gimmicky techno-horror films such as 2015’s Unfriended, but rest assured, Searching is far from being a techno-horror film. In the film’s beginning, the audience gets to know the Kim family through their pictures and videos saved in file folders with labels like “First Day of School,” school schedules on personal desktop calendars, and emails containing medical information, just to name a few. All of it feels so familiar because everyone comes in contact with at least one of these platforms daily, whether it be checking personal email accounts or uploading family photos. Within 10 minutes, it was made clear that the Kim family was very close and experienced something very tragic.

Margot Kim (Michelle La) is a teen being raised by her father, David Kim, after the passing of her mother, Pam Kim (Sara Sohn). They seem to have a healthy father-daughter relationship based on the messages and FaceTime videos between the two, so when David is unable to locate or get in touch with Margot over the course of a day, it’s obvious that something just isn’t right. When David realizes that Margot is missing, he teams up with detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to find his daughter. Loads of twists and turns (enough to make M. Night Shyamalan jealous) ensue during the search for Margot, and David’s sanity is put to the test.

Searching comes off as a Lifetime movie that made it to the big screen. Perhaps it will eventually make it to Lifetime’s programming once it’s out of theaters? It’s definitely not the best thriller to come out this year, but it’s a fun watch for those that enjoy a good plot twist or two. Or three. Or four.

-Britnee Lombas

Eighth Grade (2018)

One of my pet favorite subjects in modern cinema is The Evils of the Internet, especially as represented in gimmicky cyber-horrors like Unfriended, Truth or Dare, #horror, and Nerve. For years, I’ve been praising these shameless, gimmick-dependent genre films for documenting the mundane details of what modern life looks like online in a way that more prestigious, artsy-fartsy productions wouldn’t dare. That’s started to change with more recent releases like last year’s Ingrid Goes West & the upcoming film Searching, which sober up the Evil Internet Thriller a little with more grounded, adult tones. Even the recent sequel to Unfriended, Dark Web, lessened the absurdity of its predecessor’s premise by literally exorcising its ghosts and abandoning its supernatural bells & whistles for a much less ludicrous (and, in my opinion, less interesting) plot. And so, the coming-of-age teen drama Eighth Grade completes this transition of the Evil Internet Horror formula from high-concept gimmickry to awards-worthy art house fare. With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Movie-wise, the Internet Age as finally arrived.

Eighth Grade is, reductively speaking, an anxiety Litmus test. As the circumstances of its plot are a relatively low-stakes depiction of a teen girl’s final week of middle school, it might be tempting to group the picture in with other modern revisions of the classic coming of age formula – Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen, Princess Cyd, etc. For a constantly anxious person who feels immense internal anguish even in the most “low stakes” social interactions imaginable, the film is a non-stop horror show. As Elsie Fisher’s young teen protagonist attempts to assert herself in crowds, approach the early stirrings of sexuality, establish meaningful bonds with anyone who’s not her father, and develop Confidence as her personal brand, the overwhelming weight of the world around her (especially in moments when all eyes are on her) chokes the air with a non-stop panic attack. Even in my 30s I still approach every minor social interaction in public with an unhealthy overdose of dread; I remember that anxiety only being magnified a thousand-fold in the eighth grade, possibly the most awkward, unsure time in my life I can recall. As Fisher puzzles her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over, you’ll either find her awkwardness adorable or horrifyingly relatable. I was personally watching it through my fingers like a jump scare-heavy slasher.

The unconventional tension of Eighth Grade feels similar to the tactics of anxiety-inducing dramas like Krisha & The Fits, but the movie manages to carve out its own distinct tonal space in its explorations of The Internet as a visual & emotional landscape. This can be oddly beautiful & seductive, as with a sequence where the protagonist is put into a daze by overlaid social media posts set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It can be numbing & cruel in scenes where other kids use the distraction of their smart phones as a means to avoiding direct interaction with someone they deem unworthy of attention. Most significantly, it can be heartbreaking, as with the protagonist’s YouTube tutorials on how to be a confident, well-rounded person – two things she’s anything but. As someone who broadcasts unearned, inauthentic confidence to a near-nonexistent audience on a podcasting & blogging platform on a subject I have no authority to speak on whatsoever (why are you even reading this?), I recognized so much of my own mechanized compulsion to participate in social media content production in those tutorials. She makes them with no prompt nor reward, then broadcasts them to no one in an online void, like atheistic prayers to Nothing. Her social isolation is only compounded by the one tool that’s supposed to relieve it, which is a horror shared across all age groups & anxiety levels in modern culture.

Being alive and in public is a never-ending embarrassment. With the internet, the public sphere has been extended even further into our private spaces so that there is nowhere left to hide. In Eighth Grade, first-time writer director Bo Burnham (who got his own start growing up in the public sphere on YouTube) captures a heartachingly authentic character learning to navigate & push through that embarrassment at the exact moment when anxiety is at its most potent. If that’s a struggle you’ve never fully moved past and you frequently feel the need to punctuate each social interaction with self-humbling repetitions of “Sorry, sorry, sorry” as if you’re apologizing for the audacity of your own existence, this film will likely weigh on you as an incredibly tense experience. Anyone who isn’t burdened by anxiety or the eeriness of the internet is likely to find something much more easily manageable here, maybe even something “cute.” Even the film’s warped electronic soundtrack, provided by Anna Meredith, can either be heard as a playful adoption of modern pop beat production or a horrifying perversion of those sounds into something nightmarishly sinister. Either way, the film is worth seeing as an empathetic character study & a thoughtful modernization of the coming-of-age formula, but it’s difficult to imagine someone who sees the film as a light, low-stakes drama getting as much of a rich, rewarding reaction out of it as I viewed the film: an intensely relatable Evil Internet horror about anxiety in the social media age.

-Brandon Ledet

Truth or Dare (2018)

There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer “Truth or dare?” their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, “It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.” I’ve already exhaustively stressed in the past how important high-concept/low-budget horrors about the evils of the Internet are for being willing to document what modern life online looks & feels like in a way that classier productions would tend to avoid. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

It’s tempting to bail on enjoying Truth or Dare? in its initial setup & character introductions, which make for a very shaky first act. In an opening sequence so cliché it was parodied in The Cabin in the Woods a half-decade ago, a group of college age friends embark on their Last Spring Break Together and are met with a supernatural evil on the journey. Lured into a drunken, late-night round of truth-or-dare by a mysterious stranger in an even more mysterious abandoned Mexican church, the group is locked into a demonically-possessed version of the schoolyard game that follows them home and threatens their lives. Taking turns in several rounds, each character is challenged by hallucinations of the Snapchat Filter Demon into following through on truth-or-dare prompts or violently dying in refusal. Besides a closeted gay character and hilariously oblivious party bro (“I can’t say no to shots. Everybody knows that.”), none of these College Kid archetypes especially stand out as distinct individuals. They’re instead used as personality-free placeholders for the movie’s deployment in awkwardly staged moral dilemmas. The dares indicated by the film’s title are almost exclusively acts of lethal violence, but the real hook of the premise is in exposing the truth behind people’s desire to be seen as charitable & good. The demonic game of truth-or-dare forces characters to act out their unspoken desires and to confess their most shameful secrets in grand displays of public humiliation. The hidden selfishness of the self-righteous is a particular fixation of the game, as characters are challenged to back up statements like “I didn’t have a choice” or to prove claims that they’d sacrifice their own lives to save many strangers’. Honesty is the most highly valued virtue in Truth or Dare?’s worldview and it’s one the movie searches for in the most gleefully cruel ways possible.

Although the initial setup is a little labored (a probable side-effect of having five writers share one screenplay), Truth or Dare? gets exponentially more ludicrous (and, thus, fun) as its titular game escalates, ending on a surprisingly ambitious note with implications that are incredibly far-reaching & clever, considering the film’s lowly starting point. It’s possible to find more fully committed versions of the film’s central gimmicks in better works. The pitch-black exploitation comedy Cheap Thrills offers an even more cruel indulgence in depicting a series of violent dares gone out of hand. While Truth or Dare? verbally admits its Shapchat filter gimmick in the dialogue and adopts cell phone aspect ratios in its opening credits, it has nothing on the fully-committed Sickhouse, which is essentially a The Blair Witch Project remake staged through a series of Snapchat posts (and originally posted on the Snapchat app itself). Nerve might even be a better midpoint between the two gimmicks, where a series of escalating dares are filtered through the language of social media. The acting & character work in Truth or Dare? are aggressively bland. The music feels like faux-inspirational Chariots of Fire/allergy medicine commercial runoff. The PG-13 rating indicates both its potential for truly disturbing violence and its loyalty to genre cliché. On the Blumhouse scale, this film is more Happy Death Day than Get Out. On the Evil Internet horror scale, it’s more Friend Request than Unfriended. Still, its specificity as a Snapchat filter horror (as opposed to a Snapchat platform horror) distinguishes it from previous app-based schlock and its follow-through on the implications of its demonic truth-or-dare premise wholly makes up for its first act unease. If nothing else, I can report that the film’s ending is the most satisfying trash-horror resolution I’ve seen since the evil doll cheapie The Boy, a reference I intend as the highest of compliments (it did rank high on our collective Top Films of 2016 list, after all). Between leaving me on that high note and generating its terror through a disposable mode of online discourse, Truth or Dare? very easily endeared itself to me. I wish more people were having this much fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Ringu (1998), Suicide Club (2002), and the Horrors of the Technological Myth

The opening dialogue of the 1998 horror genre game-changer Ringu is an urban legend, a Candyman-style recitation of the now-iconic curse that drives the film’s plot. At a casual slumber party, two teenage girls discuss a cursed VHS tape that, once watched, will kill its viewer in a week’s time. The scene starts playful, but once the reality of the tape’s existence is accepted the tone turns sinister. In the dead silence of their now-terrified mood, a landline phone rings loudly in an abrupt, bloodless scare. It’s difficult to see now in the 2010s exactly how monumental of a shift Ringu was on the horror landscape. Along with the found footage-pioneering The Blair Witch Project, Ringu helped usher in a new era of horror that shifted away from the previous decades of stale slasher rehashes & sequels towards a then-fresh aesthetic built on atmosphere & folklore instead of a mad, masked killer. Ringu’s success (and the success of its Gore Verbinski-directed American remake, The Ring) is often credited for sparking the “J-horror” wave of the early 2000s, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for inspiring a wave of technophobic horror works that adapted the concerns of earlier films like Videodrome to the culture of the digital age. The Grudge, Pulse, and Dark Water are perhaps the most notable properties directly inspired by the Cursed Technology folklore of RIngu, but I think few movies pushed its aesthetic into as weird & wild of a place as our current Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club.

I don’t believe it’s possible to truly, genuinely participate in modern mythmaking without including technology in the text. Ringu smartly fulfills that requirement by focusing on technology that’s just barely outdated: VHS cassettes, cable access television, Polaroid cameras, and landline telephones are all just barely-obsolete technologies that the film uses to establish the world of its televised curse. It also mixes in traditionalist concepts like vengeful ghosts & clairvoyant visions to match this new Evil Technology folklore with a sense of dark, old world magic. Suicide Club distorts this method drastically in the way most post-Ringu technophobia horrors tend to, by making its Evil Technology current. For all its strange pondering on the crepiness of cults, pop idols, cheerful children, and kawaii culture, Suicide Club is at its heart a movie about the evils of the internet. Released at a time when the internet was young & sparse, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the eeriness of haunted websites and the danger of anonymous message boards. The traditionalist technophobic lore of Ringu is an idea picked up from works like Videodrome and (going way further back) The Yellow King: the idea that viewing or hearing something cursed could be lethal. Most technology-obsessed horrors that followed in Ringu’s wake echoed that same pattern, killing its victims by exposing them to lethal websites. The basement-level trash pic FearDotCom even featured the tagline “Want to see a killer website?” to drive the point home. Suicide Club pushes the idea much further, disorienting its audience by emphasizing the way Online Discourse has “disconnected” us from our “selves” and using the internet to spread a killer idea instead of a killer website. The curse that spreads through the internet in Suicide Club is a philosophical question, dangerous information that can be passed on through new technology in just a few key strokes. By now, the technology on display in the film is just as outdated as anything was in Ringu, but that dissociative, information-spreading aspect of the internet remains creepily relevant.

Surely, the most iconic image in Ringu is its money shot of a wet-haired ghost girl climbing out of a television set to claim her final victim in the film’s closing minutes. Like Blair Witch, Ringu strayed from the traditional trills of a body count horror to focus more on atmosphere & folklore, so the emergence of this TV static ghost is a one-time affair. The ghost’s victims tend to die open-mouthed, as if in shock, their bodes discovered after the fact. Suicide Club is a much gorier movie, even opening with a scare of over fifty high school students jumping onto train tracks in a mass suicide pact, coating the screen in rivers of blood. Where Ringu lingers on the imagery of spooky technology, filtering the occultist images of its vengeful ghost girl through the digital camcorder grain of a VHS tape, Suicide Club mostly uses the internet as a conduit for its killer, suicide-inspiring philosophy. Given its more hyperactive, gore-minded style of horror, I’d understand if some people would bristle at my suggestion that the films should even be compared. Whenever I doubt Suicide Club’s direct lineage form Ringu, though, I just think back to its trailer. The ad focuses in on a creepy fax machine in the film’s hospital setting. Like with the spooky technology on display in Ringu, the fax machine is kind of an obsolete redundancy in the film, set in the early days of email. The ad pushes the connection even further, though, including cutting room floor imagery of long, wet, black hair emerging from the machine and stretching across the floor. The only way the image could have been closer to Ringu’s most iconic moment is if the fax machine were instead a computer monitor or a television set. For all its myth-minded tonal seriousness, Ringu also ends with a thumping, dance music club track over its closing credits, which isn’t all that different than the incongruous J-pop soundtrack that clashes with Suicide Club’s horrific indulgences in gore. Suicide Club isn’t as faithful to Ringu’s aesthetic as other technology-obsessed J-horror releases that it inspired, but the two films are inextricably linked in my mind.

I don’t understand the widely-held belief that the American remake of Ringu is somehow better than the Japanese original. Gore Verbinski certainly has a slick, distinctly cinematic eye and there’s a sensational scene involving suicidal horses that raises the energy level, but there’s nothing especially innovative about the picture. Ringu is much scrappier & more adventurous, looking for new, modernist modes of horror mythmaking on a bargain budget. It’s only a step above Blair Witch in that way, attacking an ambitious idea through drastically limited means, something The Ring could never claim. However, I do believe Suicide Club successfully picked up the better aspects of Ringu (particularly its technophobic version of modern mythmaking in a horror context) and pushed them into weirder, more ambitions places far surpassing the limited imagination of its inspiration. Ringu is a traditionalist, folklore-minded work in which ghosts invade our modern spaces through slightly outdated technology. Suicide Club, by contrast, is a wildly kaleidoscopic work of blood-soaked mayhem in which then-current technology is a conduit for unknowable, unstoppable evil. Even though I prefer the no-fucks-given audacity of the latter aesthetic, I do majorly respect Ringu for inspiring it. In case you couldn’t tell from my last two Movie of the Month selections, Suicide Club & Unfriended, I’m a huge fan of technophobic, internet-obsessed horror and I can’t imagine that subgenre existing in its current state without the guiding hand of Ringu (or the camcorder technology obsession of The Blair Witch Project, its American cousin).

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, this comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002), and last week’s look at its unexpected Danish counterpart, Bridgend (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Beware the Slenderman (2017)

threehalfstar

One of the most common complaints that documentaries suffer is the accusation that they exploit their human subjects for artistic (and financial) gain. It’d be difficult to argue against that accusation in regards to the recent HBO Docs release Beware the Slenderman, which turns the real-life stabbing of a twelve year old girl into a midnight movie creepshow & a jumping point for internet age fear mongering. Although I could comfortably call Beware the Slenderman exploitative, it’s exploitation cinema done exceedingly well. The first hour of the documentary is highly effective as bone-chilling horror, opening with a Blair Witch-style dramatization of the titular “creepy pasta” the Slenderman in a heavily pixelated version of the woods. As the film tracks the legend of the Slenderman from online fiction to amateur video games to Tumblr fan art to YouTube mainstay, it makes some really interesting and genuinely unnerving points about the evolution of memes as a collective “virus of the mind” and the function of online folklore as “digital fairy tales.” It’s when the film instead focuses on the 2014 stabbing of a young Wisconsin girl that it veers into the more exploitative True Crime territory and loses track of its Candyman-esque fascination with the nature of urban legends. I definitely found one side of that divide far more satisfying than the other, but watching Beware the Slenderman navigate this confusing tonal clash and gleefully cross some ethical lines to get its point across made for a unique documentary experience.

Two twelve year old girls are taken into custody and tried as adults for stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods of Wisconsin suburbia. As there has been no decision made in their first-degree attempted murder trial to this date, a charge that could possibly earn them each 65 years in prison, the two girls’ story has, by design, no conclusion. All we know upfront about the stabbing is that the victim thankfully survived and that the accused have made no attempt to hide the fact that they are guilty. The crime is introduced in-film through media coverage montage and long-form interviews with the accused’s parents, which tells their entire life story to a backdrop of home video footage. The parents describe mostly normal childhoods outside stray sociopathic reactions to pop culture media (specifically the infamously devastating scene from the beginning of Bambi) and a gothy tinge to their daughters’ online activity. There’s a lot of frustration and empathy in those interviews as the parents struggle to make sense of children they thought they knew, an internet culture they completely underestimated, and the earliest signs of mental illness in otherwise normal-seeming childhoods. The problem is that they aren’t the only interviews the documentary is structured around. In a much sleazier line of inquiry, Beware the Slenderman integrates long stretches of the two girls’ confessions/police interrogations from mere hours after the stabbing. Watching two children describe the stabbing of a third child in cold-blooded terms is just about the most exploitative thing I’ve ever seen in True Crime media, but it serves the material well, especially in the way it deepens the creepiness of the film’s titular monster, the Slenderman.

Originally penned as a creepy pasta, but earning a full-blown urban legend status through online folklore, the Slenderman is a tall, lanky being with long arms, claws, and retractable tendrils. He is faceless, always wears a suit & tie, and is naturally drawn to young children. Adults see his attraction to children as a threat of harm, but children (especially bullied outsiders) see it as welcoming & protective. As one interviewee puts it, “Often in the adult world, we can forget how much it sucks to be a kid.” This modernized version of the Boogeyman or the Pied Piper offers alienated children the promise of protection & community. The scary part is that some kids truly believe he’s real, real enough for them to stab a friend 19 times to “prove themselves worthy” and to “prove the skeptics wrong.” By their logic they had no choice but to slay a human sacrifice for the Slenderman, explaining, “I didn’t want to do this, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Richard Dawkins is brought in as an evolution expert on the way memes spread & adapt. Brothers Grimm scholars attempt to contextualize the phenomenon in the tradition of fairy tale folklore. None of the talking heads are nearly as effective as seeing for yourself how the Slenderman is represented in online multimedia art and hearing what the fictional character’s devotees are willing to do “for him” in the real world. It may be a question of my general genre preferences with all media, but I think this documentary works best when it pursues this type of urban legend horror aesthetic instead of playing with the ethics of True Crime narratives.

I’ll admit that as an audience, my biggest hurdle with Beware the Slenderman was its length, not its ethical dilemmas. At two full hours, the film outwears its welcome a bit by the concluding 30min stretch, which started to feel as pedestrian as an episode of Dateline NBC. I’m always advocating for my horror cinema to limit its runtime, though, and it’s that genre distinction that allowed me to enjoy the documentary despite its occasionally objectionable sense of morality. Using the near-murder of a young girl by her peers for shock value or an audience hook is certainly questionable, especially if the ultimate purpose of your works to creep adults out with technophobic warnings about what children are getting into online. That’s not even to mention that the film liberally appropriates artwork from those same children for its imagery without pay or credit. I expect that kind of unethical alarmism in my horror media, though, and I really like the way Beware the Slenderman tried to make phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge, planking, and YouTube reaction videos into just as sinister of a force as CandyCrush is in #horror and Skype is in Unfriended. Before the easy fact checking days of the internet, people used to believe films like The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust were genuine documentaries, real life recordings of actual incidents. Beware the Slenderman works best as a continuation of that horror tradition by actually filling that role as a document of a real-life event. It’s a little overlong, a tad sensationalist, and mundanely sleazy in some of its True Crime touches, but it’s also a great horror film, especially for a documentary.

-Brandon Ledet

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016)

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fourstar

I love the Internet. I spend a lot of time here. I’m also a huge sci-fi nerd. I love looking towards the future, thinking about highly intelligent A.I., and I’m not afraid of the great robot uprising. On top of all of that, I’m a big Herzog fan. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World kind of seems like it was tailored specifically for me. All that considered, though, it’s ambitious subject matter to tackle. How would anyone make a film about the Internet and how it’s affected our society? Herzog’s solution to that problem is to separate it into vignettes.

The first vignette is about the very beginning at UCLA’s campus. Very early on we get Herzog’s dry sense of humor as he remarks about how hideous the corridors are in the building that houses the start of this massive cultural and technological revolution. Then, we get the basic good and bad sides of the Internet, learning about the widely released EteRNA game which helps researchers learn about new RNA molecules and also meeting a family who’s faced very real harm after a privacy invasion. As the film progresses, however, the ideas and themes sort of spiral out of control in a way that mirrors what the Internet has done.  At some points, the spiral seems less intentional than at others and often times it’s unsure whether or not Herzog — who admittedly didn’t even make his first phone call until age 17 and still doesn’t have a cell phone — really understands the information being passed to him.

The real strength of any Herzog documentary is in the interview subjects. He has a strength in finding the most interesting people to talk to. He also handles each subject with such neutral respect. Whether it’s talking to Elon Musk or students trying to program soccer robots in the attempt to beat the World Cup champions or people in technology rehab, he’s never combative and respects their boundaries.

One thing I really appreciated about this documentary was all the technology-positive viewpoints. So often in our age of smart phone and augmented reality games people are extremely and unfoundedly critical. It was truly refreshing to hear people say positively that the Internet has been a great equalizer and that the conveniences brought on by robots and self-driving cars will be helpful. Yes, Herzog still interviews people who think the Internet is the embodiment of the antichrist and others who believe that wireless radiation is ruining their lives and causing chronic pain, but they are in the minority. Everyone else looks towards the future inquisitively and optimistically.

Lo and Behold is sprawling and out of control and at some points it feels like Herzog was in over his head like someone’s misguided documentarian great uncle. There’s history to speculation, best case scenarios, and worries about an impending apocalypse included here. The film is out of control in the way the Internet has become.

-Alli Hobbs