If you’re old enough, maybe you recall the frustration of not being able to connect to the Internet because your roommate was on the phone. Or the struggle of waiting several hours to download a single song from Napster. Did you have your ‘Top 8” on MySpace? Even if the Internet wasn’t always as efficient by today’s standards, that didn’t stop horror movies from imagining 5G terrors on dial-up bandwidth. Since the days of AOL and GeoCities, horror has explored the dark side of chat rooms, cyberbullying, and questionable website content. Below are eight examples of Internet Horror movies from over the years. These aren’t necessarily the ‘best of the best’, but rather just a sample of movies you may seen, forgotten about, or never heard of.
Back in the late 90’s, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider was stalking your kids on AOL Messenger and ICQ in the hard-to-find, Strangeland. Before Rob Zombie was making horror movies, heavy metal singer Snider wrote and starred in this story of an online predator, ‘Captain Howdy’, who lures teens on chat rooms. Snider’s ‘Captain Howdy’ is an odd mix of body modification artist and a self-help version of Hellraiser’s Pinhead. If the movie’s hard to find, it’s likely because it isn’t very good. Cheap-looking, poorly directed and edited, and dragged down by some poor performances, Strangeland probably belongs in the dustbin of 90’s technology. Sadly, Dee Snider is no Rob Zombie.
Among the best of J-horror releases in the early 2000s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is a surreal supernatural classic. Audiences will find little in the way of gore or explicit horror in yet another tale of a haunted Internet site. No jump scares or sudden shocks. On the contrary, Kurosawa directs his story as an unfolding nightmare – it’s slow and lingers quietly on haunting images. And Pulse finds ways to make the shocking feel both benign and haunting. Shadowy figures behind plastic tarps and Internet ghosts look like they’re moving underwater. There’s also a compelling subtext on the role of technology and the Internet in our lives. Pulse eerily juxtaposes a technology meant to bring us together that has instead isolated us.
Still in the ‘dial-up’ era of Internet horror movies, Feardotcom merged an old urban legend – snuff videos – with the voyeuristic nature of the Web. Stephen Dorff (Leatherface) plays a detective investigating a series of murders with only one connection – a website of torture and murder videos called feardotcom. Aside from the premise of a ‘haunted website’, Feardotcom shares nothing else with Pulse. Though it boasts some interesting visuals, it’s an ugly, incoherent mess of a movie. The story only becomes more nonsensical as it goes on. To make matters worse, Feardotcom isn’t particularly scary. Not as scary as dial-up at least.
And now we’re getting into Internet myths. By 2012, the World Wide Web had been kicking around long enough to spawn its own collection of urban legends. Odds are you missed Smiley during its limited theatrical release. Briefly, the movie finds college students incurring the wrath of Internet myth, the Smiley killer. As the legend goes, if you type “I Did It For The Lulz” three times on a chat site, the Smiley killer appears and kills your chat partner. While the concept borrows a little from Candyman, it’s an admittedly neat idea with a unique-looking killer. Too bad the movie turns out to be little more than an unimaginative, derivative slasher. Maybe the director was just making Smiley for the ‘lulz’.
The Den (2013)
Despite its contrived premise, The Den is a genuinely disturbing found-footage horror movie. Similar to Feardotcom, The Den blends the voyeuristic nature of the Internet with the urban legend of ‘snuff videos’. Grad student Elizabeth stumbles upon what she believes is a real murder of a young woman on a ‘Chatroulette’ style site called ‘The Den’. Now whomever was responsible is targeting her. Not surprisingly, the movie relies on the reliable Hollywood idea that you can literally do anything with the Internet. But the found-footage format along with the movie’s lean pacing and grim approach to the material makes the contrived concept work. Even with its heavy-handed ending, The Den is watchable movie for horror fans who prefer their movies on the dark side.
Open Windows (2014)
As it turns out, Elijah Wood is something of a horror movie fan. From Cooties to Maniac to the recent Come To Daddy, Wood is a big supporter of the genre. And his 2014 techno-thriller, Open Windows, didn’t lack for ambition. On paper, this story of an obsessed fan who spies on his favourite actress through her computer has the makings of a smart, contemporary update of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And there’s definitely enough style here to suck you in. Both Wood and Sasha Grey also turn in strong performances. But the premise gets bogged down in unnecessarily convoluted storytelling. As a result, Open Windows’ potential to explore the darker side of Internet fan obsession falls short.
Another found-footage entry, Unfriended adopted the unique approach of setting its entire movie on computer screens. That’s right, this supernatural tale of cyberbullying is told through Facebook, YouTube, screencasted playlists, etc. Consider it the ultimate Millenial and Gen Z horror movie. And believe it or not, Unfriended makes the concept work. On a superficial level, Unfriended is suspenseful and tense, with its final reveal proving to be heartbreaking. All of the performances feel natural, which bolsters the impact of those closing moments. No, not everything works, but it gets enough right to deliver on its promised scares. Additionally, Unfriended offers interesting commentary on social media and the more toxic viral aspects on our cyber-worlds.
Cam is a smart thriller and a refreshing twist on the ‘technology in horror‘ narrative – it’s the best of the Internet horror movies on this list. Yes, I consider it to be better than Pulse. This Netflix thriller about a ‘cam girl’ and stolen identity works on multiple levels. As a strict thriller, Cam intrigues and unsettles in equal measures. But it also raises several questions that you’ll be left to ponder long after the credits have finished rolling. It’s both techno-thriller and meditative piece on identity. Moreover, Cam re-affirmed the star-power of its lead actress, Madeline Brewer (Braid).