Note: this film is dominated by themes of self-harm and suicide.
Put a handful of iconic scary movies into a blender and coat it with a healthy layer of Internet culture, and you get #BLUE_WHALE – one of the best 2021 horror features to date, courtesy of director Anna Zaytseva.
When her younger sister unexpectedly commits suicide, Russian teen Dana (Anna Potebnya) goes looking for answers. She lands on a mysterious online game, played by her sister on social media. To dig deeper Dana joins the game herself: a series of increasingly destructive challenges that culminate in taking one’s own life.
The screenlife movement – filmmakers simulating a social media environment in their works – has been gradually building a profile with audiences. It has evolved from the found footage genre that The Blair Witch Project kicked into the mainstream back in 1999, and then shifted into a computer-based setting via the likes of Unfriended (2014) and Searching (2018). (It is also worth giving a shout-out to Marc Evan’s My Little Eye (2002), which seems a key antecedent to screenlife cinema.) A passionate proponent of screenlife is director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), who not only named the format but produced several films in the style including Unfriended in the USA and #BLUE_WHALE in Russia.
#BLUE_WHALE feels particularly timely given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For those of use in city-wide lockdowns, quarantine, or simply staying home where the risk of infection is lower, we experience our world today via social media. We chat to friends online, order food online, order the news online – even work office day jobs from in front of a laptop. I personally watched a review copy of this movie online, provided by the fine team at Fantasia International Film Festival where #BLUE_WHALE just had its world premiere. Techniques that seemed a little forced in the mid-2010s now feel aggressively contemporary. It is always going to be a challenge presenting a narrative via a combination of Internet applications, but Zaytseva has absolutely achieved the best results with the format to date.
It is not simply a highly Internet-literate film, it is deeply screen-literate as well. There is a strong sense of pastiche in how the horror elements are drawn out and brought together – both Ring (1998) and 13: Game of Death (2006) are clear influences – as well as how the film plays in terms of its urban myth and creepypasta aesthetic. Rather cleverly, the film muddies the waters as to whether the insidious online game has supernatural undertones or not: it adds a nice sense of paranoia over for what exactly Dana has signed up.
Anna Potebnya dominates the film for the most part, and it is an honest and engaging performance. Supporting actors are generally fairly solid and convincing. There is a nice realism in how people look: claiming that ‘they’re not pretty like Hollywood’ sounds like a terrible claim that cast are unattractive people, but there is a realistic grounding to their looks – hair, make-up, fashion – that adds a more believable look than American studio pictures usually achieve.
#BLUE_WHALE is not perfect – some elements of the plot I suspect viewers will spot from orbit – but it is a smart and creative application of a particular film aesthetic. In the ways horror cinema really counts – jumps, scares, dread, and unease – it is a resounding success.
#BLUE_WHALE had its world premiere as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival and currently streaming on demand for Canadian readers. Click here for more information.