Saturday 4 January 2014

Antisocial (2013)

Director: Cody Calahan
Stars: Michelle Maylett, Cody Ray Thompson, Adam Christie, Ana Alic, Romaine Waite and Ry Barrett
The Japanese have a habit of jumping on the latest technological trend and spinning a dark urban horror story around it. Director Cody Calahan, who also co-wrote Antisocial with Chad Archibald, is a Canadian but he does exactly the same thing here. In spades. In fact, he spends so much time exploring the tech that today's youth takes as utterly routine that he almost forgets that he's making a horror movie. Sure, there's a horror framework: there's a global infection killing billions, while a small group of college kids are trapped inside a house fighting for survival. Sure, there's a great horror scene, as a young lady who has succumbed to the infection illuminates the Christmas lights that bind her, attacks a former friend like a vicious animal, only to be hauled back and thrown into a stairwell to die a second death hanging from her bindings. Sure, there are neatly unusual creature effects and hints at Japanese trendsetters, but it isn't the horror that drives the piece, it's the tech every time, what it is and what it means.

We're deluged with it early on, to the point that entire generations are surely going to be confused. The focus is Samantha Rezner, a young alienated college student. She rings her boyfriend, Dan Hamilton, on her smartphone, only to get his voicemail. Moments later, an alert pops up to highlight that he's posting to a social network site, the Social Redroom. So she hauls out her laptop to check it out, only to find that a chick with a sexy avatar had an amazing time with him last night. Almost before we can read her post, Dan invites Sam to a video chat. He's apparently at a friend's house, surrounded by people in states of undress, distracted enough that he's texting someone while he talks to her. Sam wants him to meet her in person. Dan suggests that they should take a break and, sure enough, the next alert to hit her cell is his relationship status change, from taken to single. Her response is to delete the Social Redroom app entirely. All this unfolds in only two and a half minutes, a dizzying thing for anyone over 25.

And this is actually really important. Youngsters, who populate almost the entire film, will be wondering why she used a laptop at all, rather than just using the app on her phone, or why she typed out the url in full instead of using a bookmark. Older generations are going to ignore the details, read through the whole thing and realise that Sam is pregnant, especially given her reactions to other things around her, like the sight of blood. Yet it's this distraction that's key. The modern ADD generation could get caught up by this story, as they've grown up grokking this sort of omnipresent technology, which surrounds them and comforts them. To them, this story may have substance that may resonate uncomfortably enough for them to get a disturbing kick out of the thing, but I doubt it. It doesn't do much that's new on the horror front. However, anyone old enough to remember dialup, rotary phones or pagers will be automatically distanced and will probably find the whole thing fundamentally stupid.
Where Antisocial may have most value is with the people in between, young enough to understand the various technological concepts in play but old enough to not be owned by them. This is because it's far more of a commentary on our relationship to technology than it is a zombie apocalypse movie. Sam is the most important focus, partly because she's the most, and arguably the only, fleshed out character in the entire film, but also partly because she relies the least on technology. She constantly appears to be the odd one out because she can step away from the always connected world that her peers live in and she actually seems to like doing that. Even before we realise what's driving the end of the world, we're already sure that everyone is doomed except her, if only because of pattern recognition: one of these things is not like the others, right? Apply that to the story after, say, a quarter of an hour, and you'll be able to write the rest of the script pretty accurately.

Michelle Mylett is effective as Sam, even though the fundamentals of her character mean that she has to underplay it for most of the film. Her job here is to highlight the way out, not by doing things (except one rather enjoyably icky thing during the finalé) but by not doing them. Everyone else does them and that's why they're doomed. She doesn't, much, which is why she survives. Her real story begins as the film ends, in what could easily become a very different sequel indeed, one that would be hugely more accessible to a wide audience. This entire picture could be neatly summarised in the opening text and then we'd watch pregnant Sam kick ass for an hour and a half in the ashes of the world. I'd watch that movie, for sure. Unfortunately this isn't that movie, it's merely the opening text brought to life and it's far from the same thing. Mylett, earning her first IMDb credit here, is the biggest human reason that it works as well as it does, but she's clearly subservient to the commentary.

I wondered a lot during the first half of the film if Calahan had forgotten anything to throw in to boost that commentary. His characters are all generic and broadly drawn: Steve McDonald, the token black guy; Kaitlin Cosgrove, his blonde girlfriend; Jed Erickson, the joker; and Mark Archibald, the nice guy. The actors do their jobs but there's nothing much for them to do because they're so transparent. It's what Calahan gives them to play with that we're focused on throughout: Steve films Kaitlin on his phone because she wants to make a sex tape, while Jed can't stop watching a webcam show, the one that backed the opening credits with freaky effect. This is a clever inclusion that really underlines the story; it's a fundamentally insubstantial piece of fluff, just two girls talking about what clothes they've just bought, but then one brutally murders the other in cold blood because she's infected. She comes back to the camera to tell the world and can't turn off the connection. It goes viral, pun intended.
In many ways, this is Dawn of the Dead: The Next Generation. Just as Romero updated his zombies to riff on consumerism, having them mindlessly congregate at the mall because of herd instinct, Calahan updates the concept to the digital age. These characters aren't consumers, they're creators, even if its meaningless content. They're people who live on social networks; they're the YouTube generation. Calahan sets up a few expected scenes but then deflates them. Should Mark and his friends let Chad into the house, given that he's bleeding from the nose and ears and so must be infected? A decade ago, they'd open the door and soon regret it. Here they mull for a moment then leave him to die, then check the media to see what's happening. Almost every zombie movie I've seen includes characters watching the TV for news, but in this one, that's all they do. Even with the zombie apocalypse unfolding outside, they watch it online. These folk would go to a live gig and watch it through their recording iPhones.

There are great ironies here that many won't notice; they'll surely fly far over the heads of anyone who tweets their lunch or feels drawn to check in on Facebook every time they visit the bathroom. Most of them can't be explored here because that would spoil the ending, but I can point out that for a script that revolves so clearly around internet addiction and the concept of trust in the digital age, I found it frankly hilarious to see how it all went down. I can safely highlight a minor moment though that shows up during the glorious death scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review. The infected character thrown into the stairwell at the end of Christmas lights apparently held on to her phone throughout her brief zombie phase. It drops to the floor below her as she dies afresh. It's only a brief shot, but I couldn't help but see the manifesto of the characters we watch, and by extension the entire generation it aims to caricature. You can have her cellphone only if you pry it from her cold, dead hands...

I liked Antisocial but I probably fit in that middle demographic; anyone older than me is going to find it stupid, while anyone younger may not get it. It wouldn't surprise me to find this generally derided, but with an aware audience consistently defending it on merits that the rest don't see. There are homages here to other horror movies; there's a live exorcism online that looks rather reminiscent of Linda Blair's footage shot on webcam and the name of the social network is very telling. Redroom! Redroom! There are neatly impressionistic audiovisual montage sequences that go beyond the usual, mostly by adding sound triggers alongside the usual video ones. The agreeably icky creature effects are superbly done, though they're rarely used and mostly disguised as hallucinations; they're icky, black and neatly alive. Perhaps the most likely common ground is going to be the score, Steph Copeland's first, which shines. It's a pulsing electronic piece, but not in the usual ways. It may be all that spans the generations.

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