Writer-director Tara Subkoff’s #Horror is set in an expansive luxury home nested somewhere up in snowy woodland mountains. It’s a memorable habitat, fashioned mostly from glass that allows one to take in the scenery from seemingly every angle of every room. As in other stylized thrillers featuring literal glass houses, such as The Ghost Writer and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the rarefied openness of the location simultaneously suggests chic, serrated impersonality and looming vulnerability.
Each of the mansion’s cavernous rooms is dotted with artwork that represents the film’s most significant triumph, fusing elements of Warhol’s pop cheekiness with a dash of Sadean cruelty. One painting replaces Marilyn Monroe’s face with a hard-boiled egg that’s been sliced in half, occasionally appearing to undulate. Another painting shows a man’s face bisected by a cigarette, while a sculpture appears to consist of gold-covered tractor-trailer tires. As a character memorably says, the collector of this art is less a passionate connoisseur than a “currency trader,” this gallery representing a parody of vulgarity as a roundabout celebration of same.
The last portion of that sentiment applies to #Horror in general, a blunt satire of the dehumanization inherent in social media that also gets off on said detachment. Divorced from the uncomfortable intimacy of actual social interaction, Twitter, Instagram, comment boards, and the like allow people to fashion avatars that they feel to exist apart from themselves, empowering them to indulge cruelty that fails to sully whatever illusion they have of their own decency. The creepy mansion is inhabited by several 12-year-old girls—unsurprisingly belonging to wealthy, debased parents—who spend the film’s running time tormenting one another about their weight, sexual experience, eating disorders, background, and so on. They dish out their attacks not only online, but in person, diluting the intended satire.
A blunt satire of the dehumanization inherent in social media that also gets off on said detachment.
Subkoff doesn’t discern any behavioral difference between the two forms of discourse. The girls obsessively photograph everything they do, from swimming to staging an elaborately sad masked dance (which wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Sofia Coppola), often hash-tagging images with awful messages like “#fattrannybitch.” But they’re this terrible to one another directly, draining the film of resonance and conflict.
Still, #Horror is a distinctively stylized debauch. Subkoff visualizes online usage with a series of unnervingly “cute” animated graphics that suggest an aesthetic fusion of Twitter, Tinder, and Candy Crush Saga. When the girls post photos, the “likes” ratchet up, almost like fruit on a slot machine. An unseen killer stalks them with an app that suggests which of the girls is to be murdered first, the “likes” subsequently going through the roof. A variety of effectively canted images bring to mind the work of smartphones that are blessed with elaborate tracking and dollying capabilities. But this showmanship eventually wears thin. The formal gloss is ambitiously mounted in the service of sustaining a tonal monotony.
The young cast isn’t gifted enough to command the audience’s interest in these unwavering eviscerations. Compensating in this department somewhat is a fashionably esoteric gallery of comparatively older, former “it” stars, such as Chloë Sevigny, Balthazar Getty, Natasha Lyonne, and Timothy Hutton, who tear into their material with committed lunacy—particularly Hutton, who appears to relish a break from decent-guy roles. #Horror boasts a sense of hallucinatory grandeur that shouldn’t be taken entirely for granted, likening social media to a communicable disease, though the lack of emotional counterpoint grows nearly as shrill as the target of the film’s ire.