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Filmmaker freaks out his friends with a new genre: the Zoom insta-horror short

If this video of a horror director devilishly pranking his friends is any indication, we’re about to see a lot more cinematic experiments with scares under quarantine.

Filmmaker freaks out his friends with a new genre: the Zoom insta-horror short
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The 2015 horror movie Unfriended was ahead of its time . . . by exactly five years.

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Unfriended takes place entirely over a Skype call among a group of increasingly fewer friends as a disturbed digital spirit begins picking them off one by one.

Back in 2015, the real-time desktop concept was just a clever found-footage gimmick. (One that was successfully replicated three years later in the John Cho thriller Searching.) Here in the Quarantine Era, however, millions of people are spending much of their time hanging out on screens with friends digitally compacted into little boxes—not to catch up, not to make plans, but just to pass the time, because it’s pretty much all we have. The only thing Unfriended didn’t get right was how ravenously Zoom would eat Skype’s lunch when the time came.

Since video communication platforms are where people are spending much of their time now, they have become the ideal setting for a horror movie. (Well, by that logic, they’re also the ideal setting for any movie, but just go with me here.)

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Now that opening the mail or going to the grocery store already feels like a horror movie, there’s an argument to be made that the fewer scares in our lives, the better. But don’t tell that to U.K.-based horror filmmaker Rob Savage, who recently staged a guerrilla horror movie prank on his friends over Zoom.

Savage, the director behind acclaimed horror shorts such as Salt and Dawn of the Deaf, invited quite a few friends for a video chat under the premise that he needed to investigate some noises coming from his attic. By now, the checking-out-strange-noises-in-a-spooky-place trope has been beaten into the ground six feet deep, but that’s in the movies. Nobody is generally expecting it over Zoom.

Here’s what ended up happening:

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It’s unclear whether the whole video is actually a prank on the viewer. Some of the friends seem a little too credulous that their horror filmmaker buddy is shining a flashlight around an attic. They’re either in on the joke and playing along or they’re aware of horror movie conventions and still bound by them at a moment such as this. Only after the jump scare (which is borrowed from the Spanish-language horror classic Rec), when Savage is lying on the ground, pretending to be dead, comes the biggest hint that he actually did prank his friends. One of them looks delighted and says, rightly, “That’s incredible! How did you do that?”

However Savage managed to pull off his scare, this one is likely to be followed by many others, both in terms of pranks and the kinds of insta-horror shorts that have catapulted directors such as Gary F. Sandberg to mainstream success in recent years. Everybody is stuck at home, restless, and bumping up against the same limitations. For anyone with horror movie ambitions and an ounce of creative energy, now is the time to use these limitations for innovation and make your spooky thing.

If there is another lesson here, though, it’s that when your horror filmmaker friend invites you to Zoom to investigate anything spooky, you take that call and whip out the popcorn.

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Because it just might be a call that friend has been preparing to make for a while: