ratter

4. Ratter (2015)

A college student enjoying her independence moves into an apartment of her own, but what should have been the beginning of something special instead becomes something terrifying. Someone is stalking Emma (Ashley Benson) through social media and electronic devices, following and watching her every move, and he’s growing closer by the minute.

Like our number two pick below, Ratter finds its terror in the very real world of online hacking and good old fashioned male entitlement. The stalker watches her through cameras on her laptop and phone, and while we know not just anyone could do this, we also know that it can be done. Her privacy is no more, but that realization is made worse in that she herself is utterly unaware. Small things start happening, things we know are attributed to the hacker, but she’s left confused and angry at the wrong people which in turn isolates her further from those who might be able to help. Much of the film is a steady build-up of cyber intrusions and minor frustrations, but once the stalker gains access to her physical apartment, it becomes a creepy and frightening affair on its way to a brutal conclusion.

unfriended

3. Unfriended (2014)

A teenager is bullied and harassed after an embarrassing video is released online, and the distraught girl soon kills herself. One year later a group of friends chatting online notice an uninvited user who they’re unable to remove. The unknown person begins revealing secrets that fracture the various relationships, and when the friends attempt to leave the chat they’re forced by seemingly supernatural forces to remain online. One by one, they fall victim to the mysterious user’s demands for transparency and retribution.

As with the films directly above and below, this feature unfolds entirely on a laptop screen as the various friends enter and leave chats and the user browses other pages and apps. It’s a smooth experience that may have you reaching for your own mouse once or twice. As is often the case with these movies, the terror comes both from the narrative itself and the underlying themes of bullying, emotional trauma, and reality that teenagers are often selfish jerks. Story-wise, it feels like an updated take on Terror Train or Prom Night as young people wrong someone and are then forced to pay for their actions. While it can’t touch the former, it beats the latter for thrills per minute despite the supernatural shenanigans in place of more grounded ones. It’s the one that appears to bear the most resemblance to this weekend’s Friend Request, both in title and in story, and if the new film can match this one’s spookiness, it’ll be well worth checking out in theaters.

the den

2. The Den (2013)

A young woman logs into a Chatroulette-like site hoping to talk with strangers and collect data for her thesis project, but what Elizabeth finds instead is an online predator who accesses her laptop and gains remote control of its functions. The intruder spies on her via the webcam, messes with her life by impersonating her via emails and chats, and draws a noose around her friends and family that quickly goes from virtual to deadly real.

The film eases viewers into its online world with both the mundane and the manipulative as others in the chat room angle for sex and play pranks. It’s a world of make-believe, and that very nature becomes an issue when Elizabeth tries to convince others that what she’s seeing is real. As the action and violence intrudes into her real world, the film grows even more fluid in its presentation – everything we’re seeing is on her laptop screen. From chats, emails, webcams, web sites, and more, it all exists on her screen, and while it should make events feel smaller, it instead makes you realize just how much of our lives is captured online. Like Ratter above, the film builds one creepy beat after another until Elizabeth meets her stalker in person, but it doesn’t end there. The horror grows in scope, all while still being captured on security cameras and GoPros leading to a real punch of an ending. It’s a horror film and therefore designed to scare, and it succeeds both through narrative thrills and by pointing out how vulnerable we can be in a world where data – like our very lives – can be manipulated, stolen, and erased.

pulse

1. Pulse (2001)

A steady rash of suicides begins and grows throughout Tokyo as people thought content in their lives begin ending them instead. The common thread between them appears to be images and videos of people alone, in the dark, as if they’re contemplating themselves right out of existence.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 chiller remains one of the millennium’s creepiest, and it’s a masterclass in the use of shadow and score. Traditional compositions exist alongside eerie vocals as events on the screen move from unsettling moments towards utterly terrifying set-pieces. Kurosawa avoids cheap jump scares and loud noise cues and instead scares us with unnerving beats that make their presence known slowly before growing increasingly effective before our eyes. The story finds the nightmare in technology — and our increased dependence upon it — and then spills it onto the screen in truly spooky ways from the personal to the apocalyptic. Technology that was meant to draw us closer together is instead pushing us apart, and that gap is being filled by unwelcome guests taking advantage of the abundant sadness and isolation of modern life. It’s a dreamily-paced film, but watching it unfold in a room lit only by the television and your laptop is a supremely nerve-wracking experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so on a night free of distraction. (And be sure to watch the Japanese original, not the US remake.)

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