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Forget the mutating alien force in Color out of Space, the cannibalistic cellmate in The Platform, and the invisible man in, well, The Invisible Man. For many, the most horrifying horror movie villain of 2020 has been the time-sucking, soul-sapping, addiction-feeding device at the heart of a recent and wildly popular Netflix docudrama: the smartphone.
Yes, The Social Dilemma’s eye-opening insight into how Silicon Valley keeps us staring into our 5-inch screens even left some of the most fervent Instagramaholics promising to log off and live in the moment. At least for a few days, anyway. Yet this slightly belated call-to-action from the industry’s wokest bros isn’t the only recent film to make such tech appear like an evil entity.
In Screened Out, horror short director Jon Hyatt made the leap to feature-length documentaries with a sobering look at the effects of constant smartphone usage on our mental health. (At just eight seconds, the human’s average attention span is apparently now lower than that of a goldfish!). The Great Hack picked up a BAFTA nomination for its alarming exploration of both the monetization and weaponization of our Facebook data. And The American Meme, Social Animals, and the two jaw-dropping Fyre Festival exposés have all proved that being an influencer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Of course, Hollywood scriptwriters have always been happy to paint advances in communication technology as the enemy. Ridiculous Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net (1995) warned us about the dangers of dial-up before most of us had even heard the sound of a modem handshake. We’ve had films about killer phone calls (2008's One Missed Call), killer phone lines (1992's 976-EVIL), and even killer phone masts (surely every 5G conspiracist knows the 2016 adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell). Then there’s a whole subgenre of found-footage horrors (Unfriended from 2014, Friend Request from 2016), which show how video chat can be exploited for murderous purposes.
Cautionary tales about smartphones and their never-ending array of apps are nothing new, either. Ingrid Goes West (2017), The Circle (2017), and Nerve (2016) have all explored how their addictive nature can lead to social humiliation, Orwellian oppression, and even death — in some cases all three. This year's Spree, a nihilistic dark comedy in which a fame-hungry cab driver (played by Stranger Things' Joe Keery) goes viral by offing his passengers, is the latest to tap into such themes. But it’s only over the past 18 months where the smartphone itself has served as a portal for literal monsters.
Released this week, Come Play stars Gillian Jacobs (Love) as the mother of a young boy with autism who finds comfort in his smartphone and tablet of choice. Parental locks are no defense, however, from the terrifying figure, with the slightly less terrifying name of Larry, that emerges from the virtual into the real world. It’s a premise that suggests The Babadook has swapped pop-up storybooks for Apple’s finest.
Jacob Chase’s first feature-length directorial effort in a decade arrives just in time for Halloween, following in the footsteps of last year’s Wounds, another Netflix original that implies the streaming giant wants to terrify its millions of subscribers into viewing its content through more traditional means. Here, Armie Hammer’s bartender discovers a lost phone that’s not only filled with images of bloody teeth and cockroach-infested, decapitated heads but also curses anyone who takes it home.
Last year also saw Elizabeth Lail (You’s ill-fated Guinevere Beck) attempt to cheat the death predicted by a macabre app in Final Destination knockoff Countdown and Hallmark Channel regular Debs Howard play a teen encouraged to embrace her inner serial killer by a Siri in full-on psychopathic mode. An impossibly wholesome Christmas movie A.M.I. was not. So what could have inspired this sudden demonization?
Perhaps it’s a form of inanimate revenge. Horror movies have never had a particularly conducive relationship with the smartphone. For one thing, the advent of GPS, longer-lasting battery lives, and super-fast Wi-Fi has made the art of keeping characters in peril that much harder. Back in the golden age of the slasher movie, for example, all you had to do was ship off your gang of horny teens to an isolated summer camp and let bloody chaos ensure. Now, with 81 percent of Americans reportedly owning such a device, filmmakers have to shoehorn in an excuse to justify the lack of a call or text that would instantly provide rescue.
Get Out proved that it’s possible to integrate this problem seamlessly into the plot — Jordan Peele cleverly ramps up Chris’ paranoia with the constant and deliberate unplugging of his battery charger. And you can forgive the bunker-based 10 Cloverfield Lane for the lack of a phone signal. But for the most part, directors simply rely on lazy old tropes or set their films in a recent past when landlines reigned supreme. Or in the case of 30 Days of Night, get an aspiring vampire to steal and bury all the phones deep in snow.
Furthermore, the idea of watching a horror film on a smartphone is downright sacrilegious, according to some of the genre’s most celebrated auteurs. You definitely don’t want to get David Lynch on the subject, that’s for sure. “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your f***ing telephone. Get real,” he beratingly tells viewers on a DVD extra for the head-scratching Inland Empire.
Not that all horror directors are anti-smartphone, of course. Ricky Fosheim’s 2014 twisted thriller And Uneasy Lies the Mind was reportedly the first narrative feature to be entirely shot on one. Then there’s Sam Raimi, who penned and directed several episodes of Quibi’s anthology 50 States of Fright, as did A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. However, the tumbleweed response to the short-form platform designed specifically for mobile watching suggests that the smartphone is no substitute for the cinema screen, whenever they’re actually open, that is.
Whatever the intentions may be, the “smartphones turning against us” concept still seems to have some power left. In 2021, Netflix will debut Red Rose, an eight-part drama about an app that unleashes hell on a working-class British town. But if The Social Dilemma’s nightmarish algorithm tales haven’t inspired you to dig out your old Nokia handset, then it’s unlikely anything else will.