It is too bad that COVID ate everything that was ever good, and one of the things it most definitely ate —other than our collective sanity, our hope for the future, and our ability to sleep through the night — is our fun movie summer. This should have been like every other year where we escape the heat to the cool confines of a movie theater. It was supposed to be the summer of Tenet. Instead, it’s the summer of masks, frustration, and social distancing.
But two films have dropped on VOD that are well worth a watch. Both are somehow suited to right now, probably because so many of us are stuck at home, and because we’re all coming to terms all of a sudden with this massive empire of algorithms we participate in perpetuating every day, anytime we go anywhere near social media. Surveillance capitalism has overtaken our way of life without us even realizing it. We are being watched all of the time in one way or another. Even drones are commonplace now. Security cameras everywhere and never mind the panopticon that is our new normal with our online lives on display for all to see. Our behaviors are tracked, our every move is scrutinized not just by corporations trying to sell us things constantly, or even to sell our habits constantly to other corporations so they can sell us things, but we’re also being watched by each other. So much so that it has led to massive amounts of self-censoring by some and self-appointed policing by others. Who will be the person dragged out in the public square today? How about five minutes from now?
On that note, there’s Spree, one of the best horror satires I’ve seen in a while, written by Eugene Kotlyarenko, Gene McHugh and directed by Kotlyarenko. It stars Joe Keery as a one Kurt Kunkle, the world’s saddest “streamer” (Instagram live, TikTok) who sets out to grow his online profile to be like one of the hot and popular you tubers/influencers. Because it’s satire — pitch black satire, mind you — he decides the way to do this is to use his ride-sharing job as his own streaming studio where he will then proceed to commit murder, broadcast live, just for the likes. Of course, even THAT isn’t enough to grow poor Kunckle, or as he calls himself Kurtsworld96 (and has profiles on Instagram and TikTok’s profile.
This is like American Psycho meets Eighth Grade and absolutely is a film that can be watched alongside the other films that will mark our time, the ones that paint our world as a much better utopian ideal than the one we’re actually living through. But if you see what is going on, the hell most of us are trapped in because we can’t escape this bizarrely addictive Silicon Valley empire, you will recognize the satire here. And the world it depicts.
Make no mistake, this is a dark, mostly hopeless, messy, violent film. It will be hard to watch if you aren’t into this kind of thing. Many were disgusted by American Psycho when it came out or many of David Cronenberg’s films, and even Psycho when it was released. The film doesn’t quite push all of the envelopes it might, like it doesn’t really lampoon the ever growing wave of “virtue signaling” political messages on Instagram — like a beautiful model posting a photo of herself and scrawling “Black Lives Matter” across her boobs, but it goes close enough. It does what it is intended to do, which is to show all of these people struggling to build online identities and hold the attention of hungry viewers who are always wanting more and more and more.
So yes, this is along the lines of Todd Phillips’ Joker, and Scorsese’s King of Comedy, in that it is about a loner who tries to make a name for himself. But as yet, no one has really been able to depict this world as well, I don’t think, as a horror film. We’ve seen technology horror before. There are horror films involving the telephone, for instance, the television, the internet itself. There have been horror films and documentaries involving social media, as well — but here you have the running commentary of comments and viewers urging Kunkle to keep going. It would be tragic if it wasn’t so funny. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
Kotlyarenko uses a lot of split screen to separate the events unfolding between the main characters. In addition to Kunkle, there is the hilarious Sasheer Zamata as Jessie Adams, one of the more successful influencers who becomes a nemesis of Kunkle’s. She plays a comedian but is also someone whose phone camera followers her around, who is always living and playing to that partition of her life she shares with other people. She has a much more positive fan base than Kunkle, who doesn’t even have a fan base at all.
I had a feeling that when I checked out the film reviews for Spree there would be a bit of a disconnect. Some films aren’t quite digestible in the time they’re released but I would think there would have been at least one critic who recognized the very talented person directing this. Much of the success of the film is due, it must be said, to Keery — who is endlessly watchable (we knew that from Stranger Things). He manages to play a guy who is supposed to be the world’s most bland influencer but is of course anything but. He holds most of the film together with his performance of a psychopath in free fall.
More realistic but no less surreal, is Dave Franco’s The Rental which is a wee bit more high-minded than Spree in it’s effort to impress as a well-done horror movie. It is a film about four friends — two brother and their girlfriends who rent out a house on a remote stretch of northwest coast (Oregon?). Would that it were so simple. They soon find themselves twisting into pretzels of paranoia, first about each other and then about the stranger stalking them who looks a lot like Michael Myers. Then is a smoothly and artfully directed film that leaves much of the violence off screen (Spree’s violence splatters in your face by contrast). The Rental is layered with enough plot-twist depth to sustain several visual mysteries, like the face of the villain, for instance. This is a film that is better to watch unfold than to hear how the plot goes, but suffice it to say that it too is about the bizarre point in history we find ourselves where we are being watched at all times and we don’t know who could be watching us.
The Rental is a strong debut for Franco and should absolutely launch his career as a formidable new voice behind the camera. It could have easily been a throw-away for cheap jump scares but he constructed it thoughtfully, in the footsteps of John Carpenter and the grammar of Hitchcock. As for Kotlyarenko, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
But of course, without the box office numbers to use as a measuring stick — and both of these films would likely have done well — they have to settle for the streaming deals they negotiated and will forever carry the asterisk of being released into the limbo we’re living through. I would, however, be remiss if I did not draw your attention to them. Two fine films and their promising directors.