The Guilty Pleasures: “Deathgasm” and “Unfriended”
Horror films don’t chart especially well on Flickchart. Only twelve fall within the top 250, and 76 in the top 1000. For comparison, that split works out to 37/148 for action, 46/202 for comedy, and 29/110 for science fiction films. Part of that likely works to the fact that people watch other genres of films for many reactions, but most watch horror films to be scared. Some people avoid the genre altogether; others find that very few films scare them, and therefore rank them all lower on their charts.
No other genre leads to the sort of film challenges horror gets from so many viewers. The “Shocktober” Halloween celebration, based around watching as much horror as possible (many plan out 31 movies over 31 days) is a growing tradition, inspired by cable and encouraged by streaming services. This sort of challenge doesn’t really reward sticking to the Flickchart top 1000; too much genuine dread makes the tradition hard to follow. Rather, some b-slashers, some goofy monster movies, and some rewatches of favorites tend to sneak alongside those challenging That Movie They’re Too Scared To Watch Otherwise.
If I only beseech you to add one movie in the spirit of Shlocktober, I beg you, watch the dreadfully underseen Deathgasm. The 2015 horror comedy debut of New Zealand director Jason Lei Howden hits my guilty pleasure mark because I haven’t gotten around to Housebound or What We Do In The Shadows yet, but it might hit yours because the movie borrows liberally from Edgar Wright. The hip-hop montage, pop culture references, and burnout characters are hard to miss, but the film executes on this comedy in a remarkable manner.
Deathgasm opens with a metalhead named Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) looking to find friends in his new, all-too-peaceful suburb. He quickly meets Dion (Sam Berkley,) who plays pen and paper RPGs, but the roleplaying life is quickly abandoned by the both of them for founding a metal band with Zakk (James Blake, and no, not the musician.) It only takes five minutes for this movie to reach a ridiculous fantasy of what listening to metal is like straight out of Heavy Metal magazine.
When the group tries to come up with a band name, and all the band names have perfectly stupid metal logos (laid out in neon lights!) I realized Deathgasm got the heart of metal music. This movie is puerile, gory, and funny, and gets at the idea that maybe anyone could do with a little more assertiveness in their lives. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the movie on that front, but it’s what the general style of metal is meant to achieve. And when the pure-turned-twisted love interest Medina (Kimberley Crossman, and, yes, sadly, she is kind of just a love interest) gets her own metal fantasy, it’s every bit as puerile and only slightly less sexist. That seems real to me, that sometimes people are inspired into being better by things that are not great; that’s why I tend to go to metal.
Some hijinx ensue, and the boys get their hands on sheet music that brings about a zombie/demon apocalypse if played. I won’t speak to how long it takes before said apocalypse arrives, but the movie is only a cool 86 minutes, and the apocalypse is not only the movie’s last twenty minutes. The gore effects are pretty satisfying for an indie movie, and the apocalypse brings in bats, chainsaws, weaponized sex toys, fire axes, decapitations, and Norwegian black metal facepaint. It’s a great time; the cheerleader I watched it with called it “one of the best movies she’s seen in a while,” and I’d have a hard time disagreeing.
But if you’re one of the lucky few who have seen Deathgasm already (84 users have charted the film) then I have a second recent recommendation: the highly publicized Unfriended. Also released last year, Unfriended is based on the premise that the entire film takes place on a teenage girl’s laptop screen as she Skype calls her friends on the anniversary of a friend’s death. Someone or something starts harassing them, and it quickly becomes clear (in either the trailer or the film) that it’s claiming the identity of their dead classmate. It’s a slasher found footage flick with a lot of website licensing, and its 40% win rate on Flickchart is not especially inspiring; I can already predict one comment declaring the film “not scary.”
I can agree that Unfriended isn’t especially scary; I had no trouble going to bed when I watched it earlier this month. But if you give yourself to the movie, it can be tense; a lot of that work goes to the lead actress, Shelley Hennig, who is a charming presence. But the screenwriters do a lot of work that I very much enjoyed; private messages between Hennig’s Blaire and her boyfriend aren’t reflected in the wider conversation, which allows the viewer to imagine that other characters might be engaged in their own private messages. It’s how we all use the internet anyway; we’re all multitasking, engaging with the horrors of our realities (represented in the film by the death of the classmate and the YouTube videos and articles about her death) while simultaneously chatting our friends about our weekend plans.
In many ways, Unfriended is forced to find a new language for horror. None of the deaths are especially satisfying, surprising, or thrilling, though one has a premise that is immediately humorous. But the tension of buffering and static images is relatable to any of us who’ve been in a largely Skype-informed relationship with a partner, and that suspense magnifies by acquiring the proper sound effects and licensing. In truth, Unfriended is a little cheap and a little sleazy, leaning into teen sex, teen drugs, teen partying, and teen pettiness. But it’s a fun time altogether, and it’s a great late night watch, especially as you further give way to the screen as the reality through which you perceive this film.
Now, let’s be clear; I advocate for neither of these to enter the Flickchart Top 1000 anytime soon. These are not masterpieces. But a lot of Shocktober watchlists involve umpteenth Friday the 13th sequels or corny 80s slasher flicks made on lower budgets that are directed a whole lot worse. Both of these movies have fairly high production quality for their budgets and pacing that knocks the hell out of some of the worse fare in the genre, and I like both well enough to recommend them to a buddy composing their own lists.