Screen Life Horror

Director Timur Bekmambetov coined the phrase “Screen Life” (usually used for a horror film) to describe an emerging form where the action takes place entirely on a screen of some kind. Computers, cell phones, laptops, whatever. A cousin of the Found Footage sub-genre, it shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses. A low budget approach with an eminently familiar aesthetic, it speaks to the unglamorous, unending march of technology, social media, and our compulsion to engage online.

It’s easy to see this as a gimmick, and it does have all the hallmarks of a temporary flash in the pan… but I suspect it’s here to stay, at least for a little while. In fact, as filmmakers struggle with the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic, I suspect we’ll see a surge in this sort of thing in the nearish future. This week, I covered four examples of the sub-genre, but there are plenty of others, including Searching, which isn’t really horror (though it has some thriller-ish elements), but is better than all the films covered here and well worth checking out as an exemplar of the form.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Screen Life Horror Films

Open Windows – Director Nacho Vigalondo and star Elijah Wood teamed up on this screen life horror flick about a fan who wins a date with his favorite actress. When she unexpectedly cancels the date, the fan gets a mysterious invitation to spy on her via computers. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and hijinks ensue. Vigalondo and Wood are fixtures at Fantastic Fest (we will be revisiting that hallowed fest later in the 6WH), so it’s only natural that they’d team up for a flick like this. While not the first screen life film and not quite a mainstream release, it did (barely) precede the most well known examples of the form. At its best, it plays like a sorta high-tech re-imagining of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but that also turns out to be its downfall, because in execution, this movie is clunky and not especially believable. The comparison does it no favors.

Sasha Grey in Open Windows

A lot of plot machinations strain believability, to put it lightly, but on the other hand, it’s a perfectly cromulent experience if you get on its wavelength. Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey do their best to sell the concept, and manage to help things along. One thing of note is that the interface and applications aren’t especially familiar, and yet they’re still well done (unlike a lot of fake movie/TV computer screens). The ending goes for some bigger twists and a lot of the elements rely on near magical technology and omniscient hackers and so on, but if I’m being generous, it kinda reminds me of some sort of Giallo-style climax. Sure, it doesn’t entirely make sense… but it’s fun enough! If it’s a failure, it’s at least an interesting failure. **1/2

Unfriended – This is probably the most well known example of the screen life horror sub-genre. It’s about a group of teens terrorized by the Facebook account of a girl who committed suicide earlier in the recent past. Naturally, death has given the dead girl l33t h4x0r skills, and she’s able to join their skype calls and do all manner of technical wizardry. It’s not exactly trenchant social commentary, but it does touch on how technology has changed bullying and other social conventions in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes worse. Given the pace of technological change, I imagine these will also be interesting snapshots of society and technology as well. Unlike Open Windows, the Unfriended franchise could afford to use real applications like Facebook and Apple apps, etc…

Facebook screen from Unfriended

The film itself is actually pretty slickly produced, and it looks more cinematic than you’d expect given the gimmick. It’s also incredibly mean-spirited, especially as the movie proceeds. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I basically disliked all of the characters, and that doesn’t always make for a good experience. The supernatural bits add something interesting to the story, but are also a bit hokey, so your mileage may vary. Overall, once again, it’s a perfectly croument movie. Gimicky and and a bit silly, but mean spirited and reasonably well executed. **1/2

Unfriended 2: Dark Web – This is basically a sequel in name only. None of the characters are carried over from the first movie and the supernatural elements are removed entirely. All that remains is the l33t h4x0rs (human this time, but honestly no less magical) and some mean-spirited horror. Funnily enough, this one has some twists that more resemble Open Windows than the first Unfriended. The characters are marginally more likable this time around, which also helps, such that when they start getting subjected to distressing violence, you actually care about them.

Unfriended 2: Dark Web

The premise itself, delving into urban legends around snuff films and human trafficking rings, is actually a pretty good one. Once our main character realizes that the laptop he picked out of a lost and found box contains all sorts of suspicious material, things get really hairy really quickly. Some of the videos found on the laptop are genuinely disturbing to watch, all the more so because you don’t actually see a lot. The whole thing culminates with a series of twists that tend to strain credibility (again, in very similar ways to Open Windows), but are entertaining enough. All in all, it’s a minor improvement to the first Unfriended and Open Windows, but is still hampered by similar constraints. **1/2

Host – Hey, remember when I said that the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic would drive a surge in this sort of format? Well, it’s already begun. A group of friends, bored out of their mind during lockdown, hire a medium to hold a séance via Zoom, with predictably tragic results. That’s what happens when you use the free version of Zoom for your séance: you accidentally summon a demon.

Unsuspecting victims make a toast in Host

For something that was clearly put together quickly and on the cheap, this turned out really well. Clocking in at a mere 56 minutes, I’m not even sure this qualifies as a feature film, but it’s definitely worth a watch during the spooky season, and it’s probably the most effective screen life movie covered in this post (except for maybe Searching, which was only mentioned at the top of this post). Well worth checking out, even if I suspect I might be overrating it because new and interesting content during the lockdown tends to be greeted with open arms. ***

Phew, that’s a full week in the books. Stay tuned for Sunday’s update. I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing some Monstervision throwback picks from the 80s and 90s, so you Joe Bob fans will want to check it out.

2 thoughts on “Screen Life Horror”

  1. I’m sure, as time goes on, this is a genre we’ll only see more of. After all, most of us spend a lot of time looking at screens these days. “Host” is also on my list for October.

  2. I’m curious to see if the format makes the leap from suspense/thriller/horror to something less genre focused. Something like My Dinner With Andre (on Zoom!) We’ll almost certainly see a pandemic related spike…

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