There’s no doubt that technology dominates our world now. Everyone uses phones, tablets, and computers for everything, like video calls with friends, or reading this very article. Screenlife movies (films which are told exclusively through technological mediums like computer screens and cameras, text messages, Zoom, etc.) take advantage of this familiarity with our devices and use it as the key focus of their format. It has a similar feeling to found footage movies where the camera is actually an object in the movie, not just imaginary to show us what’s going on in the story.
These screenlife movies come in all different genres, though horror does tend to show up more often. However, ever since COVID began, there seems to have been a shift, as more of this format is beginning to show up. Not only did it make filming easier to keep everyone isolated, but the rise of video calls and platforms like Zoom meant people would recognize it more. These movies bring to life our new reality and tell us stories that could almost be true.
7 Coastal Elites
Set in the US in the height of the COVID pandemic, Coastal Elites follows five different characters (including the great Bette Midler, Dan Levy, and Sarah Paulson) as they sit together in various video calls. While completely fictional, it properly chronicles what life during the pandemic was like, from isolation and the sudden swift change into working from home to the divided politics the US faced that year.
These characters sit and talk and sometimes even make deep confessions all while they sit at the computer with various backgrounds, from their own homes to some of the green screen backgrounds you can find in these video calls. There’s no doubt this film has immortalized the pandemic for generations to come to understand what it was like.
The satirical horror Spree takes the current trend of people striving to become famous social media influencers, sometimes doing whatever they can to search for their fame. Kurt Kunkle wants to go viral and become a star, but he doesn’t have anything that could help him. That is, until he gets a job working for Spree, a rideshare app, and sets up hidden cameras in the back of his car.
He begins a livestream called “The Lesson” as he tries to instruct viewers on how to become famous, and starts to kill his passengers while he streams it. While it’s thought to be fake at first, Kurt becomes increasingly more erratic and violent, starting to draw the attention he always wanted but at the cost of many lives and his own sanity. Stranger Things star Joe Keery gives a great performance in this anxious, uncomfortable thriller.
Profile is a thriller based on the non-fiction book In The Skin of a Jihadist. Journalist Amy Whittaker is investigating the recruitment of young European women into ISIS, so she creates a Facebook profile with the alias of Melody Nelson. Melody is made to be a woman who had recently converted to Islam, and Amy had hoped to experience everything she was investigating first hand. What she wasn’t expecting was to be contacted by Bilel, an ISIS fighter from Syria and leader of a brigade. They begin to talk, and romantic feelings appear to develop as Bilel attempts to recruit her into the fight by appealing to her emotions.
4 The Den
The topic of internet safety prevails though the nasty slasher The Den. Elizabeth is a college student in sociology, hoping to use the webcam-based social media site known as The Den for her project as she tries to chat with as many strangers as possible to see how many meaningful conversations she can accumulate. It starts off okay, though not without the occasional sexual content or scams.
One day, she’s drawn towards someone who seems to have a broken camera, and the stranger begins to act weird. Returning several times to talk to them, their webcam turns on suddenly only to watch the account holder murdered on screen. Freaked out, Elizabeth runs the footage to the police and finds herself and her friends caught in the sights of a group of attackers exploiting The Den to find their next victims.
The supernatural horror comedy Deadstream takes place in a livestream. Disgraced YouTube personality Shawn is known for videos in which he does stunts to overcome various fears, though it’s unsure if he actually fears them or not. In order to try and win back his previous fans and sponsors, he livestreams himself spending the night in Death Manor, a house that’s supposedly haunted, and the place several people have died in.
Occasionally, he goes into the comments and talks directly to the viewers too as he explores the house. After trying to provoke the spirits of the house with a séance, he hears some strange noises that turns out to be Chrissy, a supposed super fan who had come to meet him. He’s not sure if he should trust her, however, and as the night continues, he begins to discover what’s happened to everyone who died as his life is threatened too.
Another supernatural horror movie, Host features a group of friends who promised weekly Zoom calls during the pandemic to stay in touch with each other. This week, they hired a medium to lead them in a virtual séance. One of the members, Jemma, suddenly claims to feel a presence there with her, and shortly after, the internet cuts out for the medium, and she disappears.
Admitting that Jemma made up the story of a presence with her because the silence was awkward, everyone starts to see and experience strange things relating to the story that shouldn’t be happening, revealed to be some kind of demonic spirit they summoned with the story. The call continues as they all attempt to end the séance to get rid of the demon and are forced to watch as their friends are picked off and killed one by one. This was arguably the first great film to come out of COVID, and though it’s short, it remains a horror masterpiece.
Searching is a mystery thriller that shows the investigation of a father trying to find his missing daughter over different computer and phone screenshots. She tries to call him several times one night while he’s sleeping, and upon waking up to the calls, can’t contact her, either. Initially thinking she had already left for piano lessons, he calls her teacher only to discover she canceled them six months ago. Panicked, he goes to the police and gets the help of one of the detectives, going through anything he can access that belonged to his daughter to try and figure out where she last was and where she might be now. John Cho is excellent in this tense, enlightening thriller.