Issue #23: Spooky SZN 👻
Unfriended: Dark Web + The Blair Witch Project
We back baby! It's been far too long since we've been all up in your inbox and we're so happy to get back into our weekly groove. We don't need to tell you that the world is a mess right now. But we couldn't let spooky szn pass without proper acknowledgment.
So for our very first (of what will hopefully be annual!) Halloween issue, we've got Zosha on the existential terror of Unfriended: Dark Web and Cate on the disappointment of watching The Blair Witch Project too late. Spooky szn may be on its way out but there's no reason we can't wallow in the tiny terrors of movies that are just a little too real, or don't live up to our expectations.
We hope you've all been well. We've missed you and we're so happy to get back to yelling about movies. Let the games begin!
Zosha on Unfriended: Dark Web
Written and Directed by: Stephen Susco
Distributed by: OTL Releasing
Unfriended and Unfriended 2: Dark Web share almost exactly the same plot structure. When we’re dropped into these friends’ lives—entirely through the screen of one participant’s computer, ever-toggling between apps and video calls—we meet the same archetypes (main character, significant other, hot guy, nerd guy, two other hot girls who somehow differentiate themselves) and, to a large extent, they encounter almost the same horror.
Now that description obviously strips away a lot of the nuance between the two. Most importantly, when Cate and I sat down to watch Dark Web together (🥰), I jokingly said “I hope that this has no supernatural element at all, just the actual dark web.” And lo, it did! And honestly folks, it was spookier to me than the first Unfriended, which is supernatural horror. The first one is a haunted Skype call; the second is a hacked one. In the first, the plot works hard to get you to think that these people “deserve it” (at least, in the way horror movies can warp your logic and stress a sort of puritanical punishment system for dumb teenage mistakes), while in the second they do nothing but fight it. But with either, you get a sense that these are forces far, far beyond the control and understanding that we simple humans can grasp.
Interestingly, as someone who watched the second one first (and thus, was informed that there was ~ahem~ no way for there to be any carryover characters from the last film), I found myself watching Unfriended 2 with much more suspense. Each time the characters attempt a new way to outsmart the hacker—who makes the danger terrifyingly real with a physical and cyber presence—they felt tantalizingly close to outsmarting the bad guy. This was more than just running upstairs as opposed to running outside when escaping the masked killer, these were creative, problem-solving endeavors that I certainly wouldn’t have thought of. And, after all, that’s what makes for compelling horror (and, in particular, slasher) film fare: smart decisions that don’t pay off. As such, Unfriended 2: Dark Web left me on far closer to the edge of my seat than I would’ve thought for a film with such a low-hanging fruit of a name.
So, of course I eventually turned my attention to Unfriended. Here I was, mid-way through the longest September, living through a pandemic and political tidal wave, and ravenous for one horror film after the next. I am sure that there are already personal essays out in the void that make the case for why me (and so many of my friends) crave horror films at this moment in time; something about Halloween just around the corner, and COVID on the other side of my mask. And after watching the two, I can say that this franchise feels much, much closer to home than so many do—even something like Host, another computer-based horror film.
You might know about Host more by its logline: filmed post-March 2020, we follow a haunted Zoom call as the participants get “kicked off” one-by-one. It’s a tight hour, the length of their free Zoom call. But that’s the funny thing: real ones (all of us, by now) know your free Zoom call only lasts 45 minutes! A bit of movie magic we sacrifice for the plot, sure—but it would feel less nagging if the film was more plot driven. Mostly what you hear is what you get: the Zoom call is haunted because someone decided to fuck with the Zoom seance, and that’s about as much propelling the story as you’re going to get. It’s got jump scares, but that’s the entirety of your Host haunts.
Compare that with something like Unfriended 2: A 20-something boy finds a laptop in the lost and found of his local internet cafe, thinks it’s his good fortune and takes it home just in time for his weekly game night with friends. As he starts logging in and loading up, he finds the previous owner of the computer left some things you might not want to check—like portals to the dark web, and all the evil therein.
In Unfriended 2, the “dark web” works because it feels just as otherworldly as the undead. It’s the Upside Down, where our laws can’t touch, and we’re vulnerable just for turning around and checking on our loved ones. Step wrong and you’re doomed.
Perhaps, at this moment, it felt so scary not because I’m going on the dark web at all (parents who read this, I cannot stress this enough: I do not, and neither should you!). But because...jesus what the fuck would we do if our computer was haunted at this point? Me, my friends, my loved ones—many of us have had to repair our laptops or swap out computers during this time, and never has our station felt quite so precarious as in those moments. Yes, that may be a dumb thing to say during a global pandemic! But I make my money via the internet, and without a portal—or using one that’s been contaminated in some way—I’d be screwed. And that’s all ignoring the friends I’ve been talking off the ledge, trying to counteract the brainworms they kicked up from reading the wrong kind of news.
Post-viewing, I sat trying to remember if I heard anything about either Unfriended when it came out, and if I intentionally shrugged off the film or just happened to let it pass me by. Aside from a stray line or two that felt reminiscent of a trailer, I couldn’t think of a feeling I’d had on it in the past, good or bad. But I also don’t think it would have felt as personal to me back then. After a slow build of knee-jerk twitching when characters went to parties or hugged each other, here was something that so closely resembled more of my day-to-day: An Apple desktop of with folders haphazardly saved to it, toggling between a video chat with loved ones I haven’t seen in far too long and some internet bullshit, and about 18 different ways of messaging someone (which I am utilizing all at once). To see that corrupted felt almost personal, certainly just as disorienting as my instinctive glance to the clock in Unfriended 2’s menu bar.
But, if I’ve learned anything else during this Autumnal Pandemic Horror Fest of mine, it’s that I am constantly eager for something that strikes the perfect balance of horror: I won’t watch films that rely on torture porn or sexual assault, or anything that approaches either. I want enough plot to keep me going, but not so much that it turns into a rumination of “why do we survive?” (I’m looking at you Underwater). And it’s not fun horror if the participants don’t understand what’s happening, at least enough for a chance to fight back.
Unfriended 2: Dark Web (and Unfriended, for that matter) surpassed all my qualifications and expectations, surprisingly. It makes you care about the people enough that you can stake your standard thriller bets on who lives, who dies, who tells the story. It uses its in-screen device well, and has a sort of digital native understanding of the laptop. Things you don’t understand can be easily waved away with flattened, complicated expectations about world-building and evil. And at this moment in time, the killer has never felt quite so close to home. It’s somehow worse than the house being haunted—it’s your life out there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Cate on The Blair Witch Project
Written and Directed by: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
When I was 10, I was very, very afraid of The Blair Witch™. I was old enough to have some semblance of how the world worked but still young enough to be irrationally terrified of it. It just so happens that I was also a child with an overactive imagination, so the contemporaneous marketing for The Blair Witch Project swore me off the movie for years. No one seemed to know if it was real or not, and I didn’t need to torment my dreams with the scariest movie of all time.
Now though— as a full adult who loves horror films and has generally gotten a handle on her stress dreams—the time felt right to backfill this missing part of my horror canon. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to the hype.
It isn’t the movie’s fault. In the time since it debuted, grosser, more terrible movies have come into existence because that’s how technological advances and the onward march of time function. And I too got older and more able to handle an onscreen beheading or two. Watching the movie gave me the same bewildered feeling I got when I finally watched A Clockwork Orange in college. “This is what all the fuss was about?” I am nothing if not morbidly curious, and have always been drawn precisely to the things I suspect will upset me. (NBC’s Hannibal anyone?) I’m too nosy and my FOMO is too strong to not be part of the conversation. But as with A Clockwork Orange, values and standards have changed dramatically in the time between The Blair Witch Project’s release and when I finally saw it. Frankly, it’s got nothing on John Wick 3 (which I still have not gotten more than 15 minutes into despite really wanting to know what the deal is with Halle Berry and those dogs!)
As you likely already know, The Blair Witch Project is about a group of three student documentarians who travel to an old town to investigate an old ghost tale. When they trek into the forest and get lost, they slowly lose their sanity and each other before being killed by the town’s demons.
The problem is that The Blair Witch Project is simply too quaint for the sensibilities of someone who cut her teeth on slasher films and murderous ghost stories. And a big part of me regrets that! If I had seen this film closer to release, I have no doubt that I would remember it as a formative piece of terrifying media instead of simply an ambitious example of the possibilities of independent film.
And the film is good, make no mistake. It’s moody and tense and the stakes increase exponentially in a way that I’m sure was legitimately upsetting at the time. But I’d been pre-warned that there were no jump scares and no actual Blair Witch looming between shots, so there was an added sense that I was building to nothing. (My most controversial opinion is that jump scares are good actually.)
The film it reminded me of most was actually Uncut Gems, a movie that stressed me out so badly I had to watch it in two installments. My nerves can’t take a lot of CONSTANT YELLING and when the intrepid documentarians behind The Blair Witch finally realize and accept that they are hopelessly lost in the woods, running out of food and turning on each other, I could feel my heart rate increase. Voices raised, they argue and bicker and blame each other for their plight, and I was much more annoyed that they wouldn’t calm the fuck down than I was scared at the prospect of them being gutted by a ghost. I guess it’s a marker of my adulthood that conflict was more upsetting to me than the specter of a serial killing ghost.
But in the end, the inevitable death of the three students did not scare me. It frustrated me. With no visible villains other than their own terror, I was annoyed they hadn’t managed to get it together and save themselves. (Never go into the creepy house!) But, it must be said that The Blair Witch was set in 1999. Maybe that trope hadn’t entered the canon yet ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
¡Viva la Revolución!
VOTE IN PERSON BABY, OR SUBMIT YOUR BALLOT TO A BALLOT BOX!
WEAR YOUR MASK AND WASH YOUR HANDS!
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Chrissy Teigen's post-miscarriage essay is truly such a lovely piece of writing. And how could you not want to read about how Ted Bundy's killing spree lead to a feminist karate movement? Or how the onslaught of live/Zoom/filmed reunions is benefitting the Democratic party? Or Noelle Stevenson on making the magical girl transformation scene gay(er) and emotionally honest? Or might I interest you in a measured, dexterous look at optimism in 2020?
Cate: I am a big proponent of boundaries, but I'm still very sad that my imaginary girlfriend Roberta Colindrez won't let me thirst follow on Instagram. But I'm amusing myself with this great takedown of Netflix's ridiculous Emily in Paris. I'm also loving this amazing taxonomy of conspiracy theories from Abbie Richards, and I'm equally confused about wtf I was doing at 13 years old. Then, there's this essay on the collapse of the once-feted publication Man Repeller. And finally, an answer to why you've been driven to nesting in quarantine!
This next week is gonna be a mess as we wait for the final results to *signal drops* ...so more than anything, we want to encourage you lovely people to take care of yourselves. Read a book, take a bath and LOG OFF. (But then log back on for our next issue!) We'll see you very soon!
100% over this goddamn election, but still yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3