Double Feature: Profile (2018) & Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

Profile (2018)

Director (& co-writer): Timur Bekmambetov

Cast: Valene Kane, Morgan Watkins, Christine Adams, Emma Cater, Amir Rahimzadeh, Shazad Latif

An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter. – IMDB

Released as part of the initial three Screenlife films aka cyber found footage along with Searching (review) and Unfriended (review), Timur Bekmamtov delivers Profile, a film about a UK journalist Amy (Valene Kane) who goes undercover and engages into an online conversation with a jihadist Bilel (Shazad Latif) to learn about their ways of recruiting religious converts, their operations and how these converts are transported. As she uses her alias profile Melody to talk to Bilel, a leader who wants to woo her, she starts to blur the reality of her assignment with this new relationship during the process and things go out of control with both her boyfriend and her boss. 

Screenlife is a fascinating subgenre that fits very well to the modern world we live in and breathes new life into the found footage genre. The three Screenlife productions by Bekmamtov all vary in scenario and genre, showing the potential of the variety of stories it can tell in a convincing way through the screen of someone. The cyber element used here focuses heavily on the accessibility of information at our fingertips and the ability to multitask while in a conversation. It exposes a world of danger that resides online. Unlike the other screenlife stories, this one is based on a non-fiction book In The Skin Of A Jihadist. The fact that its based on a real event makes it even more captivating. 

When dealing with cyber found footage, this one is centered around two main people, Melody aka Amy and Bilel. Their characters become the focal point especially for the former as it’s all from her point of view aka her computer screen. Her character is fantastic as the contrast of nervousness of setting up the first conversation to the ease of diving into believing Bilel to the big finale makes her character rather complex or perhaps gives a nod to how convincing the character of Bilel is. He becomes a real and convincing person when he seemingly can offer so much and knows the right things to say: shedding a bit of personal information at the right time and sharing an insight of the positivity that surrounds him as well as the dangers. However, it’s all an expectations versus reality situation that drives to a rather intense finale. There are some sudden character shifts and it has to do with the subtle and fast moving timeline however the interactions between the two along with Amy’s research along the way is some shocking stuff.

Profile might not quite hit the epicness of Searching in the Screenlife films by Bekmamtov, however, it definitely packs a punch with the narrative. A lot of these films do work so much better watching it on a computer screen than the big screen in terms of involvement. Much like documentary films like Caught In The Net which tries to lure out its predators in a real situation, this adapts a true story into a believable scenario with this format which suits the whole investigation very well. It’s definitely worth a watch. 

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

Director: André Ovredal

Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Lorraine Toussaint, Kathleen Pollard

On Halloween 1968, Stella and her two friends meet a mysterious drifter, Ramón, and uncover a sinister notebook of stories. – IMDB

Based on the children’s book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was co-produced and the screenplay co-written by Guillermo Del Toro. The story follows three friends as they find a sinister notebook of stories which writes itself and eventually, the people around her start disappearing. As danger creeps closer to themselves, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) has to act quickly to find out the truth about the girl Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) who lived in the haunted house where they found the notebook in order to hopefully put an end to the string of events which as befallen them.

In some ways, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark almost plays out like a horror anthology. The different stories being written throughout the story reflect a different segment for the different characters who are Stella’s group of friends. While the film focuses on the angle from Stella’s point of view as she is the one who took the book and asked for its help in the first place, it becomes an “evil” that she can’t get rid of even after regretting her choice. Its also because of these moments that the film’s main storyline around Stella and finding out about the Bellows history becomes what strings along the story but its hard to not feel like there is a sense of disjointedness when the strength is in the little stories themselves and this isn’t meant to be an anthology. That is coming from a person that hasn’t read any of the source material so maybe its the issue of adaptation.

The cinematography is the standout element for the film. While the stories themselves might not be all that scary in execution, the horror elements is mostly from the different forms of the horror figures that it brings to life in a varying dark and creepy atmosphere that somewhat exceeds that of what you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation. Each story has their own horrific element and as the story is being written and the actual events are going down, it leaves space for anticipation of what comes next and what horror is waiting for that character. Most of them are great imaginations and as they come to life really add in the darker element for this film set around these simple horror stories to scare children. Perhaps its the simplicity that makes them work even more.

Overall, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is visually appealing especially when bringing to life the horrors of the stories. The premise itself is also quite good as a foundation especially for a children’s books series and actually some of the horrors in the film feel almost too much for children however, the execution does leave a little to be desired. While the separate stories are really fun to see come to life, the main plot line isn’t quite as well told and with the teen cast, some bits are still rather silly.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: #Blue_Whale (2021)

#Blue_Whale (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Anna Zaytseva

Cast: Anna Potebnya, Yekaterina Stulova, Polina Vataga, Timofey Yeletsky

After the mysterious suicide of her sister Yulya, Dana discovers something odd in her sister’s laptop which leads to discovering the inexplicable suicides of many teens in the town. As she digs deeper, she discovers that it all links back to a lethal game called blue whale game. In a scheme to trace down who is responsible for group, she joins the game and participates in the tasks as one by one, each task is more dangerous than the previous one breaking her from society both physically and mentally. As the game becomes not only dangerous for her but also her loved ones, she needs to risk everything in order to find out the mastermind behind this cruel online game.

#Blue_Whale is a 2021 Russian Screenlife horror thriller through and through. For those unfamiliar with what Screenlife is, its basically a term that defines found footage genre but with modern technology screens like phone and computer screens. These two being the main ones used in this film. Co-produced by the pioneer of the screenlife genre Timur Bekmanbetov, this film is a directorial feature film debut for Anna Zaytseva who also co-writes the script. Screenlife is a subgenre that has been on my radar since Unfriended (originally titled Cybernatural when it world premiered in Fantasia a few years ago) which has lead to a lot of great film concepts including a high point with Searching. While Russian films aren’t exactly knowledgeable on my end other than the one or two films from before, the premise is one that sounded like it had great potential especially since it is based on actual cybercrimes in Eastern Europe. The online world is a scary place sometimes especially for these hidden communities and worlds and in the recent years, its really showing how horrible it all can be: manipulative, dangerous, and so on. The story here does portray that element incredibly well.

The execution of the film is pretty good. One of it has to do with the fact that while its a Russian film, the whole communication online is written in English and English articles and whatnot. I personally don’t have any Russian friends so I’m not sure if they communicate in English and not in Russian normally, which is something that I’d really love to know. Or if that is just for the purpose of the film being more accessible to the international audience. However, if there was something to nitpick, the idea that I’m reading in English on screen is more convenient which is a plus, the spoken language is in Russian so it took a little bit of time to get used to not only reading the screen but also not forgetting to catch the subtitles (although, that might be just my own problem), however to be fair, a lot of the dialogue can be mostly deducted from what is going on on the screen itself.

The screenlife element is almost pretty well integrated because it leaves a certain level of unknown. Anything happening off-screen becomes unexpected. For example, there’s one task where she needs to cross the highway and all you hear is the rushing cars and the reactions on screen but never really know how bad the surrounding is making it feel like anything that can happen. Most horror films let the audience see the danger element before the main character does but the thrilling point of screenlife is exactly the opposite, the unknown danger lingering around.

With that said, I can praise screenlife as much as I want but as well as the execution is, the main character is a big part of what makes this film engaging as you spend literally the entire film in their perspective or seeing their face on the multiple screens. Dana, played by Anna Potebnya is absolutely fantastic. Her character is crafted really well. The other characters are a little more shallow in comparison but her character really builds right from the start with her family, the mother-daughter relationship right down to the blue whale game bringing out the isolated elements of how she feels about the world but yet still not being brought down by the negative impacts the game is meant to bring to the teens involved.

Overall, #Blue_Whale might be one of the more straight-forward horror experiences at this year’s Fantasia (from the ones that I’ve seen). Its a horror thriller in its purest form right down to its core. It has a little bit of drama and some lessons to learn from the story itself as it does reflect the current online landscape pretty well. The pacing actually doesn’t give you a lot of time to think or to breathe as its pretty packed and always moving. There’s a really good soundtrack to complement the whole film experience as well. I mean, the ending could probably be better and is a little easy to figure out what the endgame is as it lays out those clues and suspicions pretty well and it is in the details but, it doesn’t take away from the overall experience being yet another well-structured, quick paced and well-scripted screenlife film.

*#Blue_Whale has its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 17th.*