Many of the films or TV shows made over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic have addressed the experience of lockdown, quarantine, and self-isolation to varying degrees of success. Songbird, about a future in which a mutated virus has resulted in further stratification of American society, was “flawed and cluttered.” More successful was the romantic comedy Locked Down, which benefited from “a dry humor and slight absurdity.” And thoroughly mixed was the Prime Video miniseries Solos, which alluded to the worldwide pandemic in several of its exhaustingly overperformed monologues.
Perhaps the key to creating art during the pandemic is to create art that isn’t about the pandemic. Nearly 600,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many countries around the world are still experiencing widespread infection rates and vaccine scarcity. Some distance might be beneficial. Thankfully, that is exactly what Untitled Horror Movie provides.
The horror-comedy — which leans far more toward the latter tone — was produced during quarantine by a cast and crew who never met in person, set up all their own lights and gear, filmed all their own segments, and then edited everything together to a tight 87 minutes. Those restrictions mean the film is low-budget, and sometimes feels constrained by the fact that its characters interact only through video chat on phone or computer screens. But Untitled Horror Movie is the kind of finely tuned exercise that benefits from the chemistry of its cast, the managed-expectations feel of its storytelling, and a firm awareness of the kind of low-stakes entertainment so many of us might appreciate right now.
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Untitled Horror Movie is familiar: a storyline that mocks the inherent narcissism of actors; a supernatural baddie that has very loose motivations; a cheeky analysis of the broadcast-TV ecosystem and the selfishness of its highest-paid executives. (Minus the demonic part of Untitled Horror Movie, it owes a lot to the deeply funny, relentlessly downbeat Party Down.) There is comfort, though, to a recognizable story done well. The editing is seamless, and the few jump scares are well-deployed. And although the characters are very stereotypical types — the ditzy one, the conceited one, the pervy mustachioed one — the actors are clearly having fun, and their energy buoys the project.
Untitled Horror Movie focuses on the cast of Belle, a CW- or Freeform-esque series that has secured an obsessive fandom without great viewership numbers. The six main cast members of the show are waiting to learn whether they’ve been renewed for another season by the new network head, which would mean more work, more money, and more fame. If the network drags their feet on canceling the show, they could keep the cast under contract while only paying them a small fee and refusing to allow them to work elsewhere — a possibility that causes the actors to spiral into despair.
While they wait, Kip (Timothy Granaderos) decides to start working on a horror-movie script. He enlists ex-girlfriend Kelly (Claire Holt), the lead of Belle, and fellow castmates Chrissy (Katherine McNamara), Alex (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Max (Darren Barnet), and Declan (Luke Baines) to act in the project by filming themselves in their apartments to create a found-footage approach. Like all coworkers, they’re not exactly friends. Kip and Kelly still have tension from their breakup. Kelly barely tolerates the flighty Chrissy. Max’s method-acting techniques irritate everyone. Declan’s bro-y demeanor turns people off, including his agent Mark (Kal Penn, in an enjoyable one-scene cameo). The level-headed Alex often plays mediator between all these feuding sides, but even she can’t hold herself back from smirking at Kelly’s constant wine drinking or Chrissy’s excessive lip-gloss use. All of these people are actors, and they’re all kind of assholes.
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Kip’s “untitled horror movie,” though, could be the key to the next phase of their careers, despite them all agreeing that the script is mostly terrible. What, Alex wonders, is the demon’s motivation? The prompt sparks a brainstorming session that tips the group’s fictional found-footage movie about a supernatural entity into meta territory. Declan suggests a banishment curse to add more drama to the plot. Chrissy volunteers they use a pendulum necklace of hers that “connects to your higher self, giving you divine guidance.” Kelly worries about their flirtation with the dark arts (“Is this Hogwarts?” Max laughs), but everyone is nailing their scenes, and ingeniously coming up with special effects. Because that’s what the shadows in Chrissy’s apartment are, and the whooshing wind that starts up in Alex’s living room, and the banging on the door at Declan’s place, right? Movie magic?
Aside from an amusing opening sequence that brings to mind the genre classic Scream and the spoof Scary Movie, Untitled Horror Movie doesn’t rely on tricks or obfuscation to tell this story. What’s onscreen stands alone, and there’s a refreshingly straightforward quality to that. As a result, the film ends up more satirical than scary. We build a perception of this demon, ghost, or supernatural entity through the outsized reactions of the actors, whether they’re in character in Untitled Horror Movie or in Kip’s “untitled horror movie.” We understand how the cast’s competitiveness and ambition would result in each of them thinking that another person is backstabbing them, or manipulating Kip to get better dialogue, or holding back during video-chat rehearsals to instead shine during a recorded scene. But the cast is also warm and familiar enough with each other that their concern when things start to go wrong reads as genuine, and cuts through the collective cattiness.
There isn’t much in monster design aside from a few sound effects (distortion, growling), and there isn’t much in physical intimidation aside from a few characters who choke themselves. The lightness with which Untitled Horror Movie pokes at genre conventions (“Supernatural stuff gets so cheesy really quick,” Kelly says) and at the superficiality of celebrity, though, makes it a pleasant watch that doesn’t overstay its welcome or overcomplicate its story. Untitled Horror Movie isn’t going to be a classic, and it’s arguable whether the film is even really horror; the body count and blood splatter are minimal. But it might be the perfect at-home streaming watch, demanding little from the viewer, but delivering more than anyone might expect.
Untitled Horror Movie is available for digital rental on Apple and Amazon.