SQUAD GALLOWS

by Chris R. Morgan

giphy

My least-favorite subgenre of horror is the slasher. As I’m on the record as a snob in this—really any—respect, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But it never started out that way. Like most horror fans, I was reared into the genre by watching slasher films. Slashers were what the video stores had in most ready supply when I was young, and under severe—but fair—constraints from my mom I could watch them. Only those few usual suspects—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween—stick with me today. Gone are the countless sequels and knockoffs that fascinated me in middle school but somehow didn’t warp my brain. Not totally anyway.

The slasher seems at first like a paradoxical type of film. It has adult themes and situations, but they are depicted in so simplistic a fashion that only a juvenile could possibly appreciate it. At the same time, however, the pornography parallels are not simple parent advisory group hyperventilating. If you exchange the special effects of The House on Sorority Row and Debbie Does Dallas, not much will actually change. I exaggerate, but not by much.

The dip in quality from the few good antecedents, where ambitious but shrewd filmmakers managed to wring out so much from very little, is sudden, steep, and without traction. For comparison, the 1978 film Halloween and the 1981 film Final Exam are very similar on the surface. Both depict a small locale being terrorized by a nondescript man with a knife. Both films open with a gruesome murder, and a lot of time passes until the next one happens. But one is remembered more than the other for good reason. John Carpenter—a student of radio suspense—knew how to create atmosphere, build character, and propel the story to its logical ends using chiefly a William Shatner mask and a synthesizer. Final Exam is more like a dollhouse than a film where characters wait around to be played with.

But occasionally there come along a few films, good or bad, that redeem the slasher in one crucial respect: depicting the toxicity of friendship, specifically of the clique. To be sure, this was more of a necessary byproduct than a conscious theme. A slasher film needs bodies for quick, routine disposal (see paragraph two), a friend group going on a trip, to take a classic example, is one way to do that. The slasher genre can be seen as one long chain of dead #squads, whose ends were brought about as much by the bad behavior and dumb decisions of their A-types and the passive subservience of the B- and C-types as they were by actual murderers. The dynamic never really got its due, in part because the people being killed were meant to relate in some way to the people paying to see them killed. But perhaps this had to have its moment, when the nature of friendship itself would be subject to unprecedented changes—like maybe right now.

The internet is not new to horror, but only recently has it been approached in any sophisticated way. Most internet-centric horror films of the late-‘90s and ‘00s look now as if they were informed by Dateline or Lifetime. The internet was still a novelty and had not changed social life very much. Kyoshi Kurosawa’s 1998 film Pulse works because it used the novelty to unsettling effect: being online will dissolve the wall separating the living from the dead. There is less excuse for that today now that human interaction is data-driven. An effective internet horror film needs the full understanding of how it works, how people use it, and how it can be used against them.

Unfriended and Friend Request were released in 2015 and 2017 respectively. They are both horror films centered on social media, but they take different approaches with different results. Neither film is considered a classic but Unfriended is the more critically lauded of the two. It is shot in its entirety as a Skype chat between five high school friends. Over the course of their chat they are interrupted by an unknown user, who has damning information on all of them and proceeds to use it against them in torturous ways (posting photos and videos on their Facebook accounts, for instance), before it kills each one. The user turns out to be the spirit of a hated classmate who committed suicide—revealed early in the film when our main screen shows a LiveLeak video of her death.

I made the mistake of seeing Unfriended when it was in theaters. It turns out you need your laptop to better appreciate its story. It’s a gimmick, everyone accepts that, but it’s not an abused one. The makers were able to use the framing device as a tool to build suspense rather than as a cool distraction. This worked because they figured out the trick of social media: it makes you your own unreliable narrator. What we know of the antagonist Laura Barns is delivered in pieces largely by the characters who hated her. She was a “bully,” though no one clarifies beyond that. Blaire, our primary screen, quietly defends her former friend with reminders of her traumatic past. If you pause the film at a certain point, a news article reveals more context, including a learning disability, pre-existing depression, and other struggles. But soon we start to know much more about the group itself and how awful they are. Indeed, the deaths of each character seem almost merciful compared to the methodical breaking of the group’s bond and the realization that that bond was held in place mostly by a mutual lack of empathy for anyone but themselves, not even each other.

Friend Request was panned on arrival. I can’t say it wasn’t earned. Though its effects and jump scares are better than I had anticipated, the acting is substandard and the film has a story only insofar as it copies, almost beat for beat, the arc of the Ring movies. Its views on friendship are not as well thought out as they are on Unfriended but that makes them, in a way, more worthy to explore.

The film centers on Laura, a student at a college that is definitely in southern California and not Cape Town, South Africa. She is conventionally pretty and an active social media user with over 800 Facebook friends; the film will occasionally display her friend count as it progresses throughout, it is an amusing conceit. One of the requests she receives is from a classmate Marina, a pale, black-clad, and awkward student with zero friends, online or off. She has an artistic streak, which Laura blandly appreciates. It doesn’t take long for Marina to go into obsessive mode, barraging Laura with DMs and “likes,” professing a sisterly connection that plainly isn’t there. Laura has her own friends, as attractive and outgoing as she is, and when she rebuffs her for them in an understandable but thoughtless way, Marina takes it poorly, filming her suicide and uploading it on Facebook. But of course this is a horror film and so she is only mostly dead. Using occult ritual, she effectively transforms her spirit into an exceptionally lethal malware, killing each of Laura’s friends, and her mother, and uploading it through her account, which she can’t delete.

In his scathing review of Friend Request, A.A. Dowd writes that “there’s at least one unsavory way in which the movie feels timeless, and that’s its demonizing of—and total lack of empathy for—life’s social (and Social) misfits.” I remembered this line while watching the film. Like previous slasher films, Friend Request feels like it was made for “normal people,” or so it thinks. One of the most glaring plot holes of the film is why Marina would be interested in Laura at all. They have nothing in common, for one. What we know of Marina is Bad: she is weird, compulsively pulls out her hair, and has dark interests; what we know of Laura is … actually we don’t know anything about Laura beyond the fact that she is pretty and nice. But what more do you need? The film goes to comical lengths to show how Laura has the best life and the best friends. During the birthday scene, where one of those friends is offering a toast to a life of success and happiness as if these were self-evident rewards only they could conceive of, seems to have come from the Tommy Wiseau School of Subtlety. Of course Marina wants to be her friend, they all do, and of course it’s not their problem that she can’t.

There’s something to be said for this view, for that is the kind of thing that social media does. We’ve always celebrated friendship in real time, but digitizing the scrapbook turns it into a kind of achievement, a secret society that is not at all secretive. This makes more sense as the viewpoint of the film changes. We start to learn more about Marina’s background, coming to college with a path of tragedy, abuse, and death in her wake. Her mother (you’re not going to watch this) was a member of a coven and a comatose burn victim when Marina was born, to take just one example. Marina and Laura now seem less like mismatched friends and more like totally opposed abstractions. Marina has had all the world’s ills foisted on her literally since birth, Laura all the world’s fortune. This is incel logic. Marina’s digital spirit texts Laura to say “u will know what it feels like to be lonely :),” and as her friend count plummets to 26, it feels almost just.

If horror can sometimes seem like comedy that isn’t funny, this is especially true in the case of Friend Request. I wonder if any of it could have been salvaged if it had been instead a dark satire, depicting the modern world through the eyes of either deeply entitled or hopelessly damaged young people. A world where the vicious strata of the internet is a haven compared to a featureless society teeming with clueless adults who, so far as I can tell, have no idea how to administrate a college, investigate a crime, or raise a child safely. In its present, more damaged state it qualifies for memorialization through out-of-context GIFs rather than full cult status, assuming that is even possible anymore.

But both Unfriended and Friend Request at least leave the door open for deeper examinations of friend groups and the peril they constantly invite. Horror is more than its bodies; people are more than their friends. And yet people will still pay money for friends to put other friends through all sorts of Hell.