This week sees the release of Unfriended, a cyberbullying horrorshow told through the computer screens of its pretty cast. The use of ubiquitous technology is not a new hook on which to hang a scary movie, but there’s an undeniable potency to scares via Skype.
The move away from conventional film making makes sense given the proliferation of cameras on our personal devices. That the horror genre is fueling this move is also no surprise. The move from audio and text-based to visual electronic communication brings with it an unease which filmmakers such as Zachary Donohue and Nacho Vigalondo have been keen to exploit with The Den and Open Windows respectively.
It is the immediacy of the screen based horror which makes it an interesting turn. The real-time events allow an audience to maintain the all important suspension of disbelief as the boundaries inherent with a conventional narrative film change. We’ve all seen and experienced webcam chats, watched thousands of clips on YouTube, we fire off texts and instant messages like catherine wheels; as with the events in the first two [REC] movies we are experiencing the horror as if we are ourselves there.
Horror movies have long used technology to chill our bones and stir the blood. Fear of new technology is an understandable side effect of progress and directors with an eye on the future have always played on this fear.
Few may remember the nonsense of 2006’s Stay Alive with Frankie Muniz in which an ‘online computer game’ featuring teen avatars being brutally murdered ends up with real teens being brutally murdered. It was a terrible idea, badly executed but it was one of the few horror films to make a computer game integral to the plot.
Though he is often cited for his obsession with body horror it is arguable that David Cronenberg has a similarly potent penchant for the dangers of technology. The Fly is an obvious example, Videodrome we will come to later and while Stay Alive may have been a thankless misfire Cronenberg was on the right lines with eXistenz, and we can trace that line back further through to The Lawnmower Man.
The path of the future may lead to the palace of spine-chilling terror and it won’t be long until some enterprising filmmaker begins using Snapchat to tell their story. YouTube itself is home to some excellent horror series right now.
Marble Hornets used Slenderman as its antagonist (itself the result of an idea cooked up in an internet forum) and finished its 87-part run last year and inspired the imminent film Always Watching.
As we look forward to being afraid to Skype our friends again let us look back at the milestones in techno-horror. Where technology is used as a means to a very grisly end.
Friends, this is not an exhasutive list, that is a foolhardy undertakung. Instead consider this a first step down a dark, digital path.
When David Lynch had Robert Blake’s Mystery Man hand a telephone to Bill Pullman in Lost Highway, for Pullman to hear Blake’s own voice on the other end of the line, he tapped into the unsettling nature of a phone call. That we can hear the other person, but not see them, gives rise to a primal fear akin to hearing approaching footsteps while hiding under a bed. In this scene Lynch uses the phone as a tool to unsettle.
See the opening 18 mins of the first episode of Twin Peaks, which concludes with a phone call, for another example of how distance is used to devastating effect.
If we accept that we can talk to someone on the phone who isn’t present with us we accept there is a distance between us. It is when have that distance becomes suddenly removed, such as Wes Craven demonstrated in the first scene of Scream, that unease becomes fear.
When Drew Barrymore’s character picks up the phone we naturally assume whoever is talking to her is not close by. If they were then why the phone call? This assumption becomes the lynchpin of Craven’s set piece. ‘I want to know who I’m looking at…’ is the killer line, uttered by the mystery caller.
Slowly he gets closer to his victim until BOOM! in through the window he crashes and it’s all over.
For other phone related horror check out Chakushin ari, often named One Missed Call from 2003.