In The Shadow It Waits: A Live Zoom Horror Film

A horror film performed live via video conferencing that has more ambition than scares.

Rapidly becoming the new ‘found footage’, Zoom Horror is now a definite Thing, channelling the 2020 zeitgeist into a format that is at once new and fresh, yet immediately something that many of us can now connect with. if the pandemic has been the making and mainstreaming of video calling, then it also seems to have birthed a new genre variant. Host is the big hitter of this new style, and we’ll be looking at that film in particular and the format in general very shortly, but today – Halloween 2020 – saw another example appear fleetingly before vanishing back into the ether.

In the Shadow It Waits is not just a Zoom Horror, but essentially an ephemeral film too. Performed, edited and broadcast live, it is something that exists in a moment of time (though presumably recordings are made, kept and will be given a longer shelf-life at some point). As the ‘film’ is being performed at broadcast at special events – Raindance today, other festivals beforehand – it becomes more an event than a movie, and I suspect that it is being allowed to get away with far more than a regular film would, simply because people are dazzled by the novelty. But the film is only novel if you disregard the long history of live TV drama and the twenty-odd years of found-footage ubiquity, and to judge this differently from anything that you might have picked up on DVD seems weird. Either it works, or it doesn’t.

After a few minutes of technical issues (that may be part of the whole performance but don’t feel like it), the film gets going with a bunch of people who are locked in their homes during a pandemic – not this pandemic, it seems, given that they have been isolated for a year already – and are communicating via Zoom (or whatever video conferencing format you choose). They all work in sales and a stab at character development takes place in the opening minutes, though the format doesn’t make this very easy. How much dialogue is scripted and how much improvised I don’t know, but it feels like the latter takes precendent, and that’s not to the film’s advantage. Everything feels very stilted and awkward, and we don’t get a feel for these characters or their relationships at all. Anyway, they play an online game based around an urban legend – very techno-Candyman, basically – and before long, a malevolent spirit is stalking each of them across their scattered locations.

At around 45 minutes (give or take a few), this ought to be a tight enough shocker to work simply as a series of spooky incidents, but it feels very long and nothing much is happening most of the time. When it does, you can hardly see what is happening, and this is why I suspect a more structured and traditional production style might have been better. The very nature of found footage demands a very focused narrative development even though the footage is supposedly random reality – the best of these films build a story and allow their shocks to be both sudden, disorienting and unsettling. Here, things are often too murky and shaky – the look of the film very much in the hands of the actors without the opportunity for retakes. Whatever scares there are involve you filling in a lot of gaps yourself and peering frustratedly into the pixelated gloom. regular found footage fans will, of course, be painfully familiar with all this, but here there is the added joy of everything being filmed with webcams and split screens.

The result feels like being in a plodding Zoom meeting where you are not participating – a familiar feeling for many people these days I suspect. Little happens, despite a lot of hysteria, tears and shouting (again, much like many work Zoom meetings) and in the end, it feels depressingly uninvolving. I’m a sucker for gimmicks and I think that there is a lot of potential for genuinely scary Zoom-based films, but perhaps more than any other format, this is not one suited to live broadcast. Perhaps if these live versions are seen as rehearsals for a ‘proper’ film, then they have more value, though if this is a work-in-progress, I think that a lot more work is still needed. As it is, it has neither the technical gloss of a movie or the immediacy and intimacy of a theatrical show.

I feel bad dismissing this, because there’s no faulting the ambition of the project. I do appreciate the effort put in here by all concerned, and in truth, there is no one – not even writer-director Michael Beets – who you can point at as being at fault. I think that the film is ultimately defeated by the limitations that its ambitions cannot overcome, and for all the potential that there is here, in the end it felt rather pointless.


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