Score: 3 out of 5
Hoo boy, is this the sort of movie that seems almost tailor-made to get on the nerves of anybody who watches it. You thought Unfriended was too cool for school? You ain't seen nuthin' yet. Look at the title. Look at the fucking poster. Look at it. It's like writer/director Tara Subkoff (a New York artist making her feature filmmaking debut) is practically waving an outstretched middle finger in your face, and after seeing the actual film, I must say that it was not at all false advertising. This is a movie awash in garish colors and sound effects juxtaposed against the isolation of a mansion in the Connecticut winter, with visual effects ripped from a nightmare hybrid of Instagram, Facebook, Candy Crush Saga, and Grand Theft Auto, all tied together by some of the most repulsive and utterly evil human beings I've ever witnessed in a horror movie. At the very least, it's unique, with the closest comparison I can come up with being some sort of hybrid of the social media horror satire of Unfriended and the trippiness and amorality of Spring Breakers -- and even that doesn't do justice to what I saw. It's something you would absolutely never see playing on the inside of a multiplex, and indeed, I had to trek all the way to Coral Gables to watch this at the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema. But then again, there's a lot of direct-to-video crap that isn't fit to show inside a commercial theater. Does this movie work with its... uh, offbeat nature, or did it push even my patience to the breaking point?
The answer is that it's kind of both. On a storytelling level, #HORROR doesn't particularly work, mainly thanks to its loathsome protagonists who (save for the lone "good girl") you not only can't root for, but whose deaths you are actively cheering -- and even then, the twist ending will make you want to drop a salted nuke on the whole place to make sure that everybody is dead. That's on top of foreshadowing that doesn't really go very far. It's a movie with a lot of ideas, but it can't really pull them together that well. No, this film is a triumph of style over substance, as what it lacks in the former it just makes up with the latter. This film looks gorgeous and sounds amazing, feeling like the closest thing to what would happen if Sofia Coppola made a horror film. Subkoff may need someone to go over her scripts, but after this, I'm definitely interested in seeing her future work as a director.
The film follows a group of rich twelve-year-old girls holding a sleepover at the Connecticut mansion of Sofia Cox, the leader of this group of mean-girls-in-training. Sofia's father Harry (Balthazar Getty) is an art dealer and collector who gets murdered in the opening scene (along with his mistress, played by Lydia Hearst), while her mother Alex (Chloë Sevigny) is a vain drunk who can't be bothered to look after the kids, so it goes without saying that there is nothing in this house stopping these girls from being as cruel to each other as they possibly can. Eventually, when one girl, Cat, gets kicked out of the house thanks to one such incident gone too far, bad shit starts going down.
We get a ton of hints in many directions as to what's happening, the juiciest being the possibility that the house is haunted by a mad artist and protege of Andy Warhol's who, one day while hosting a party, snapped and murdered a bunch of people. It's with this that I come to this film's greatest singular quality, its love of art and style and how that drips through in every frame. Sofia's mansion isn't your usual old dark house, but rather, it's designed in a sleek, mid-century modernist style, with wall-sized windows looking out on the cold woods outside and filled to the brim with all manner of avant garde art from paintings to sculptures to films. Subkoff's direction is great at bringing this house to life, hinting that something is just plain wrong about the place by way of askew angles and paintings that seem to be alive, and when it comes time to get down to business, this film is not afraid to subject its adolescent characters to some harrowing experiences. Beyond that, we get the social media sequences, which are bound to divide just about anybody who sees this. Personally, I thought they were done well -- as garish as they were, it drove home the point that these girls treated their behavior like a sick game. The score is equally twisted, sticking in my head on the drive home, and the surprisingly big-name cast brought to bear here, led by Chloë Sevigny and Timothy Hutton as Cat's unhinged father but also including all manner of cameos for the adults, all do great work. The youngsters, meanwhile, also did really good. I could not imagine being in the same room as all of those brats, so one could say that they delivered great performances in terms of getting me to hate them.
And that is where the film started to lose me. It simply does too good a job of getting me to hate the main characters, to the point where the Eight Deadly Words ("I don't care what happens to these people") started to come into effect. With the exception of Sam, the token "good girl" who goes to her friends' private school on scholarship and doesn't fit in with their elitist lifestyle (and no points for guessing that she's the final girl), all of the young protagonists are total bitches. They each have their own neuroses, but their cattiness overrides everything. It's odd to mark down a film on the basis of what it succeeded at doing, but in this case, when that goal overrides the basic rules of creating characters that I can care about, I'm gonna dock it some points. It's not just the kids, either; Hutton and Sevigny's characters are equally unsympathetic and loathsome, warped parodies of careless parents who you wish the killer would target as well, and it's due entirely to the actors that those characters work at all. Unfriended showed how you could make utterly repulsive teenage characters interesting not just in spite of their actions, but because of them, and #HORROR fails to pull that off. It undercuts this film's message about the horrors of cyberbullying when, even after the kids lose access to their phones and briefly start acting like decent human beings now that they're not tagging each other with humiliating hashtags, they quickly go back to their assholery. The clear intended message was that technology made these little monsters who they are, but the message that actually came across was precisely the opposite -- they were like that all along, and their phones merely enabled them to carry their behavior further.
The Bottom Line:
#HORROR comes apart at the seams once you give it even a mere glance-over, but I'm not gonna deny that I had a good time watching this. Other films have handled its subject matter better, but it's still a stylish, twisted, and daring little flick.