101 mins | Tara Subkoff | (USA) | 2015
Synopsis: Six twelve-year-old friends gather for a sleepover at the fabulous Connecticut home of Sofia (Bridget McGarry), whose mother, Alex, is played by Chloë Sevigny. The girls alternately create various scenarios so they can upload pictures and verbally abuse each other. One of the girls, Cat (Haley Murphy), crosses the line, telling the one girl who’s not unhealthily thin, Georgie (Emma Adler) that she should kill herself. She’s kicked out of the house and soon the other girls realize they are being stalked online and then in deadly reality.
#Horror is the writing and directorial debut of Tara Subkoff, actress and fashion designer. She has talked quite explicitly about her interest, in this project, in marrying the horror film to social commentary. Mentioning some of her favorite horror films and directors (Wes Craven, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining), she describes horror’s important work of “social commentary,” its way of “talking about politics.” Subkoff’s interest in social commentary pervades #Horror, which directly speaks to our obsession with electronic devices and social media. According to Subkoff, cultural narcissism is reaching boiling point: “we’re just obsessed with ourselves and promoting ourselves,” she said, in an interview on Quiet Earth.[i] Subkoff also takes aim at cyberbullying, as the girls in #Horror pass up no opportunity to ridicule and abuse each other in person and on social media.
Certainly one of the most interesting things about #Horror is the way it presents the girls’ obsession with social media. The point of their sleepover, of their interaction, seems to be to stage scenes so they can upload them and collect “likes.” Even after they lock their phones away, their actions are utterly stylized, playing for a camera that may not literally be there anymore but that seems nonetheless to have become thoroughly internalized.
Indeed, in an intriguing sequence, Subkoff moves from (1) an image posted on a social media site, (2) to a shot of one of the girls loading it, (3) to the actual pose itself in “real” life (3). What this sequences suggests, in its inversion of the actual temporal sequence, is that, for the girls themselves, the images on social media come first and then they organize their lives to create those images. Subkoff’s representation of these media-obsessed girls is perhaps the most frightening part of the film.
With their unfettered narcissism, it’s safe to say that the six girls at the center of Subkoff’s film are not in the least bit likeable. Viewers probably don’t really care, then, when, near the end, those girls are stalked (by someone with a camera, of course) and killed. The artificiality of the girls’ lives, experienced through and as uploads for social media, works well to serve the film’s social commentary but ends up detracting from the horror. The deaths of the girls are filmed as spectacles similar in kind to the spectacles that composed their lives—and not only can I not imagine audiences caring very much, but life and death blur together as they all end up as fodder for the camera. The film is shot in an overwhelmingly bleak, white, snowy Connecticut landscape, and the coldness of the mise-en-scène pervades the relationships of the film, as well, I suspect, as the viewer’s response.
Although Subkoff has spoken of her love of 80s horror in particular, #Horror reminds me not only of the recent Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014), but more fundamentally of Wes Craven’s 1996 film, Scream. Scream marked a turning point both in the horror film and in our culture. It was one of the first horror films to feature a cell phone—a relative curiosity at the time. (The sheriff actually asks Billy Loomis, played by Skeet Ulrich, what he’s doing with a cell phone.) With its cell phone and constant references to film, Scream marked the increasing media obsession of teenagers in the 90s, and Craven made that obsession integral to the murders.
The same is true of #Horror, although now, almost twenty years later, there seems to be virtually no part of life, of reality, that escapes the totalizing reach of the device, the camera, and of social media. As such, the pre-teens in #Horror embody none of the humanity of (most of) the teens in Scream. They are virtually fungible images: we can swap them in and out and it doesn’t matter. Their reality has been swallowed by their image: as a result, much of the visceral emotion that is central to the horror film has been swallowed up too. #Horror is definitely worth watching for its chilling message, for the beauty of its cinematography, and for its aptly frigid and remote performances. Don’t expect it to get your heart racing, though.