The Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents:
By Trista and Daniel Robichaud
SYNOPSIS: Six 12-year-old daughters of wealth and privilege gather at a modern art collector’s creepy mansion for a slumber party. Distant from their parents by age and inclination, these girls vie for attention on an online social media platform accessed by their phones. Their bullying, cruel interactions perhaps draw the attention of a serial killer in the area, and it is somewhat of a relief when the bloody deaths start…
#HORROR (2015) begins with infidelity and murder—handsome Larry Cox (Balthasar Getty) stops his flashy red car in the snow-covered woods outside his posh country mansion. He asks a beautiful, lingerie clad girl to wait in the snow so he can call his wife, Alex (Chloë Sevigny). He lies to her, saying he’s in the airport. Alex, ensconced among modernist architecture and cold modern art, seems unconvinced. We then see a mysterious figure murder Larry and his employee-cum-date among a series of quick film cuts. This seems pretty standard horror fare, but takes a left turn.
Yes, the opening teaser is classic slasher movie. In an interesting turn of events, though, the transgressors against the social norm (that is, the sexually active couple) are adults playing adults. Unlike other transgressive slashers, say SCREAM (1996) where an adult (Drew Barrymore) played a teenager, here we have adults acting their age! Although not the assumed maturity level associated with that age. I thought that was an interesting opening touch.
Yeah, it’s interesting to see the supposedly responsible adults take the hit for behaving badly. Well… hit man’s hit? J
Writer/director Tara Subkoff (known for acting in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) and THE CELL (2000) then brings us into the emotionally brutal, competitive clique of six preadolescent girls from a rich private school. For some, the fact that this can be the stuff of mundane horror is surprising. For myself and other middle school survivors, not so much.
So much of the opening numbed me, and not from boredom. These sequences repeatedly clubbed me in the spiritual equivalent of my nutsack. Just when I thought I was desensitized, the film would hit me with something else. “These people,” I actually said aloud at one point, “are so awful.”
Awful people seem to be a theme here.
We meet a couple of girls early. Distant widower Dr. White (Timothy Hutton) tries to convince his daughter, Cat (Hayley Murphy), to stop playing an online game because of bullying. As observers, we see him playing a game on his phone during this conversation, and aren’t surprised when Cat announces she hates her father.
We also meet Sam (Sadie Seelert), a scholarship girl to the posh school, who doesn’t want her mom (Jessica Blank) to drop her off at the house because of her Mom’s old car. When her mom asks why Sam doesn’t want to hang out with a neighbor, Sam retorts “Ma, she’s ELEVEN!” We follow Sam into the creepy, empty modern art house until she finds the rest of her friends at the party.
These six 12-year-old girls are given access to Alex’s old clothes, jewelry box, and makeup table. Mom (Alex), drink in hand, then leaves the girls alone while she goes to an AA meeting. We have makeovers, selfies, and dress-up. Fun stuff, right? Not so much when the girls upload pics of each other with hashtags like #fattranny and #poorgirl, calling each other out as ugly for the entire Internet to see.
This lasts in cringe-making horror and sympathy pains until Cat, taking the abuse to a chillingly logical conclusion, tells chubby Georgie (Emma Adler) that she’s so fat she has no future, and should just kill herself. Sofia (Bridget McGarry), the party hostess, turns on an uncomphrehending Cat and kicks her out of the house. Cat has nowhere to go, and calls her father, Dr. White, in a panic, leaving a heartbreaking voicemail. After exiling their friend, the girls lock up their smartphones in solidarity with Georgie and try to entertain themselves until Alex returns home.
What follows is: bloody premonitions, tall tales, secrets, underage drinking, lies, and the discovery of dead Larry. Someone watches the girls and records their revels, occasionally posting stills online with even more unflattering hashtags. Tension ratchets and the girls cannot call for help. A thunderous Dr. White returns and threatens the girls in his frantic attempts to locate Cat. The murders begin again, and we are unsure whose hand holds the phone recording video of these events.
What did you think of the murders, Dan?
They actually affected me. As I watched the kids being cruel to one another, I found myself looking forward to seeing them die, if only to shut them up. Then, as their deaths arrived, and they regressed into being scared human beings throwing off the masks of “assumed maturity” they had been wearing, I felt sympathy. The murders made me uncomfortable in a way typical slasher fare does not.
Yeah, what made a scene of Dr. White threatening the girls with a knife so effective was something similar—the girls threw off that ‘assumed maturity’ and became terrified kids again. Good eye.
For another example, one of the murder scenes views a severely wounded girl inside a glass tank, holding her hurt belly, weeping for help, and occasionally banging on the window, leaving the obligatory bloody, smeary handprints. There was something in the portrayal, and the cold lens observing her final moments, that hurt to watch.
So, were you part of the twelve-year-old party set, Trista? Please tell me no.
I got to go to a couple rich kid parties where the rich family shows off, yeah. I think I was the youngest kid there, though, and didn’t really understand how the other girl’s competitions worked. Saved by cluelessness, I guess, though at the time I knew I was missing out on something. It would be a few years before I could look back and go “Ohhhh.”
#HORROR alternated cringe-worthy reminders of my own adolescence with the distancing stalker recordings of the girls. I found it uneven and uncomfortable, and had trouble sympathizing with any of the characters. There are a couple plot holes (Who DID kill Larry Cox, for example?) and my personal movie kiss of death— “based on a true story.” I’ll save that rant for another time, but too often this label is used to explain uncreative and lazy storytelling for my tastes.
There were scenes of whimsy and sweetness, and some fun camera work, but not enough to endear #HORROR to me. I don’t know whom I’d recommend this movie to. How about you, Dan?
Well, although the movie is weirdly paced and executed, it is effective. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about the film’s complexities. It plays to more than just the slasher type fare, which it seems to be at first cut. Err. First brush.
This is a movie rooted in the ugly side of that famous Fitzgerald quote, “The rich are not like the rest of us.” There is a whole subsection of just about every mainstream genre of fiction or film that likes to look at the decadent wealthy with a cold and critical gaze. Romance deals with this pretty often, but a closer cousin to this film would be something like Peter Straub’s works, such as “Perdido: A Fragment” or “MYSTERY.” In these fictional pieces, we have a lower-class character interacting with the fabulously wealthy and discovering the terrible effect levels of privilege that only obscene wealth can have. Now, those novellas and novels don’t quite share this film’s targets—the children of wealth—but there is a line of inspiration that can be drawn here.
I like the psychological aspects as well. Early on, Alex tells her reporter acquaintance (I hesitate to use the word friend, since Alex seems to have people she uses instead of boon companions) the house is divided into two remote halves: His and Hers, which can easily be read as left brain and right brain, or the concepts of superego and id. This house-brain is also set into an unforgiving and cold wilderness of winter snow and dead trees, but the house itself is not comforting in its color scheme. There are shocking colors—mustard yellows and particularly passionate reds—seen in such disparate places as the dead man’s car, a prominently featured lamp, and the lighting in the closet of Alex’s treasures—but these are always surrounded by stark black and white contrasts.
Another theme in the movie, one that works better here than in say SCREAM 4 (2011), is the film’s attempt to tackle what wild role social media plays in bad behavior, desensitization, and ultimately in low self-esteem. Here we have constant edited-in animations of moments clocked “for-ev-ar” in some unknown site, hash-tagged with hipster enthusiasm or borderline pathological cruelty passed off and twelve-year-old “joking.” However bad it gets, though, the kids never refuse to continue partaking of it. They get hit in the face with a firehose of emotional bile, they mope for minutes, and then they are back online giving as hard or harder than they have been given. Much of this is learned behavior. Sure, the characters played by Timothy Hutton and Chloë Sevigny are not always on their phones, but they are acting in high speed, going through emotions in an exhausting manner. Well, exhausting to watch. Hutton’s Dr. White grows enraged and he starts to talk in fast forward, dragging up a knife and making threatening movements with it like some hyperkinetic Looney Tune. Meanwhile, Alex has her henpecked assistant searching high and low for missing phones, which she has conveniently forgotten in her jacket pocket; she goes from full-on hardcore bitch to her assistant, back to “silly me,” when realizing her error, but she never actually apologizes to her off-screen assistant when she barks, “I found them!”
The only half-way normal parent we see on the screen is Sam’s unnamed mom, who really seems keen to be a part of her daughter’s life and eager to convince her daughter not to go to this rich girl’s house. However, Sam has been hooked by wanting to belong, so she can escape her past bullying experiences. There are a lot of images of blood and violence associated with her in this piece, including a great blood flood sequence that recalls the elevators of gore from Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), which paints her into the role of the broken girl who must heal herself before she can resolve the fractures in the world she has fallen into. She is an unlikely Alice in a grownup’s Wonderland.
There are some really interesting touches in this movie for me. Some uncomfortable material, and some neat images. However, I can’t say I like the film. I find myself caught up feeling the same way I do at the end of a gritty Jack Ketchum-style story: I can appreciate the vision that gave me this thing, but it does not actively court my affection. A film like this wants to be what it is, and I can appreciate what I am seeing.
Maybe we should come up with a ratings system like those famous guys, LL Soares and Mike Arruda? Though I’d want to split it into two categories, “effectiveness” and “awesomeness.” #HORROR gets high effective and low awesome from me.
Those two are in a class way above us! If this movie has taught me anything, it’s this: Don’t show up at the houses of people outside your class because someone’s gonna get stabbed. And with the way those Cinema Knife Fighters throw knives around for ratings? Yeesh.
But I agree, the movie is effective yet difficult for me to like.
© Copyright 2017 by Dan and Trista Robichaud