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Tech That Tried to Kill Us! How Hollywood Puts the Horror in Horrible

Yes. We actually watched these movies. We suffered through them for you. We tracked them down in video stores and on Netflix, and sorted through piles of rubbish and even the Youtubes. We watched them all, and this is what we have gleaned: technology, guys, is scary. It causes addiction, it connects us with weirdos, and it is responsible, we suppose, for Emmerich-style mass destruction. Yet, Hollywood seems to be most fascinated with that last bit -- and when it comes to attempting to scare the bejeezus out of its horror-loving public, current tech trends are unfortunately ripe for the picking.

Remember that amazing scene in 'Poltergeist' when the little girl proclaims, "They're here," or the incredible terror we all felt during 'Terminator 2' when we witnessed Judgment Day? Those are iconic moments, preying upon our fears of the unknown or of technology growing beyond our control. But, as we explained in our rundown of movies about the Internet, technology gets dated real quick. So relying on gimmicky gadgetry for a quick scare ends up, in the long run, looking silly. Think of 'Feardotcom,' the movie that treats streaming Internet video as a bizarre novelty that, for some reason, involves torture and smut. Or 'The Ring,' where a horrifying girl is killing people via videotape, but could eventually be stopped -- by the advent of DVD! (Note: The CRT TV in 'Poltergeist' doesn't look dated, simply because the sense of dread is so palpable.)

For Halloween, we've rounded up the ways horror has tried to use tech to kill us. Text messages from the dead, TV waves that destroy your brain, even evil EVP. The bottom line is that true creep factor is a well-written plot, expertly paced scenes and deeply disturbing imagery -- not a possessed iPad or rogue radio.


White Noise (2005)

White Noise
Good news, guys: we've found Michael Keaton! It's been years since he donned the Batsuit or got Jack Frosted, but that's because he's been spending his time tuned into the radio waves, attempting to locate his dead wife. But some cranky ghosts are upset that Mikey's been prying into their private time. What Keaton believes are his wife's plaintive cries are actually impassioned warnings against playing with the afterlife (and were painfully obvious to all of us). The ghosts were represented by three dark figures awkwardly shadowed in white noise. Yes, three shadowy figures. Who wrote this, a six-year-old? Demons kill Keaton, but he returns to say a final bye to his son via white noise on the radio, while his ex-wife (still alive, as Keaton's quite the marryin' type) looks like she's heard a ghost. (And she has.)

How technology is killing us:
To be fair, it isn't. It's a conduit to the unknown, and playing with it the wrong way is like opening up your house to any psycho-demon passerby. Of course, some people wholeheartedly believe in EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon. In fact, the movie ends with a vague outline of Keaton in the static, and the words: "Out of the thousands of documented EVP messages, one in 12 were overtly threatening in nature." Then it fades to black, and a cheerful acoustic song begins to play. Seriously. We think it was Green Day.

What SHOULD have killed us:
The jump cuts. In fact, the credit sequence was the most nauseatingly edited POS we've ever seen. That, or the creepy random psychopath at the end who has been "listening" to the messages with Keaton, and is way scarier than the TV aliens. Or ghosts. Whatever.

How the movie failed:
The premise of 'White Noise' is actually a good one. Radio waves course through the air, and the spectrum is huge, so something must be lurking somewhere, right? Well, that is what EVPers believe, but instead of getting a chilling lesson in EVP, we see a hodgepodge movie with elements of J-horror, "Gotcha!" moments and bad ghost stories.

Fright factor:
Six. There were a few good jump-out-of-your-seat scenes, but, once the "demons" were shown to look like bad props from Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" (and Michael Keaton was reunited with his wife on the static in the last scene), things just got ridiculous.



Pulse (2006)

Pulse
Kristen Bell is Mattie, a normal college student with normal boyfriend problems. Well, mostly. He's been MIA for a week, and keeps calling and hanging up. But, really, he's unlocked a portal to the realm of the life-sucking dead through his extra-curricular hacking, and has wound up killing himself. His computer falls into the hands of a mechanic named Dexter. Mattie and Dex then watch a ton of people die, and ghosts crawl out of machines. Eventually, the world ends, a plane somehow manages to catch fire (midair), and the duo ditch the city.

How technology is killing us:
Mattie's boyfriend (who lives in a ratty dump compared to her spacious apartment) is a hacker who opened up a spectrum that is reserved for ghosts. Mean ghosts. Who suck the life out of you, and turn you into poorly rendered CGI ash.

What SHOULD have killed us:
Yet another Japanese remake. Also, the RAZR phone hurts our souls at the deepest level, and it was the actual star of this movie, not Veronica Mars.

How the movie failed:
If this movie were any more awash in blue tint, Bell would have looked like a smurf. Sure, we get the J-horror references, but jeez. Learn how to create "atmosphere." Also, Dex sure is a stand-up guy, despite buying stolen goods (Mattie's BF's computer), cashing bad checks and being generally rude. But, you know, he'll give his life up for a complete stranger. Also, Mattie was totally in love with her dead BF, who totally ditched her to tune into DEAD FM.

Fright factor:
Three. The frame of the ghost putting his ear up to Mattie's (above) is clearly just an old guy in bad makeup. However, one scene with the guy from 'Freak and Geeks,' where he's just watching Kristen Bell and her impeccable eyeliner, gave us chills.



Lawnmower Man (1992)

Pierce Brosnan turns the village simpleton into an evil genius with psychic powers using nothing more than video goggles and leftover costumes from 'Tron.' Stephen King fans will note that the film bears no resemblance to the horror master's short story of the same name, in which a mad satyr conjures a lawnmower to provide him freshly cut grass to eat in the nude. That would've been a much better movie.

How technology is killing us:
The "cutting edge" technology of virtual reality proves to be so powerful that, in the hands of the bloodthirsty military-industrial complex, it can make any man a vengeful, god-like monster who tears people apart with his mind. (And who turns lawnmowers into autonomous killing machines, which is what most god-like monsters strive to do.) Apparently the virtual world is the key to unlocking the secrets of sorcerers, alchemists and the iRobot corporation.

What SHOULD have killed us:
Being pumped full of untested "neurotropic" drugs and spinning around in a human gyroscope for hours on end should have at least led to some serious vomiting.

How the movie failed:
Like many films about computers, the depiction of technology in 'Lawnmower Man' is laughably unrealistic. It's clear the writers didn't even have a basic understanding of their primary plot device, which is a constant theme in these rotten movies. Add in CGI that was shockingly terrible even for 1992, and you've got a film that even writer/director Brett Leonard (the man behind another VR-inspired crap-fest 'Virtuosity') should be embarrassed to have on his resume.

Fright factor:
Nine. Although 99-percent of the film deserves a zero, the opening sequence involving a cyborg chimpanzee playing a real-life game of 'Doom' is our worst nightmare.



The Ring (2002)

The Ring
Turns out the viral VHS tape was created from beyond the grave by a girl who was trapped in a well for a week (hence the seven-day grace period). She was tossed down the well, and left to die by her mother who was acting at the behest of her own father. Confused? So are we. Poor, talented Naomi Watts got sucked into starring in this J-horror remake, which also uses the horror-trope of a creepy, dreamy kid who communicates with the antagonist Daveigh Chase, who has way, way too much hair.

How technology is killing us:
Videotapes and television can cooperate as a conduit for evil spirits that stalk and eventually kill us with torture methods similar to those we were made to endure in college: esoteric student films.

What SHOULD have killed us:
Getting smashed in the face with a falling TV set, and then plummeting 40 feet down a well seems like it would be pretty fatal. That, or the biblical floods from the nearly constant rain.

How the movie failed:
Well, for one, it's 2002 and people are still using VHS tapes. Not to mention that the American remake ruins the creepy atmosphere of the Japanese original ('Ringu') with a convoluted sub plot about horses and an infertile couple.

Fright factor:
One. The scariest thing is the David Lynch rip-off video clip that acts as the harbinger of death. (Wiggling fingers! A fly!) We just sullied our underpants when we realized that director Gore Verbinski expected to terrify audiences with this film-school-reject trash.



Feardotcom (2002)

Feardotcom
Rather than a single coherent story, this film has two rough outlines of plots: one about a serial killer who broadcasts the torture and death of his victims online, and the other about a website that kills people... WITH FEAR! Similar to the VHS tape in 'The Ring,' the site was created by the ghost of a serial killer who wants revenge. (Note: Vengeful ghosts are decent Web designers.) In the end, all plots converge, slamming sloppily together like two ill-fated cars, and the resulting wreckage is then called a "film."

How technology is killing us:
With FEAR! Oh, and by turning us all into disturbing voyeurs that only serve to encourage the murderous impulses of psychopaths who then feel compelled to build websites that turn us all into disturbing voyeurs.

What SHOULD have killed us:
A shot to the chest from a Luger P08 at pointblank range while not wearing body armor sounds like a recipe for death to us.

How the movie failed:
In every way possible. "The Doctor" streams his murders to the Web using old-school VHS-C camcorders, and the titular online destination is actually FearDotCom.com. This movie was so bad that it effectively ended the writing and directing careers of William Malone, Moshe Diamant and Josephine Coyle.

Fright factor:
Zero. Any chance of this movie earning even a one on our scale of terror flew out the window the moment the computer forensic specialist started typing URLs depicted by cartoonishly evil fonts into her computer's "hotbox."



Matrix: Revolutions (2003)

True, this isn't a horror movie, and, yes, we chose the worst offering of the franchise. But this is the movie in which Neo comes FACE TO FACE with the machines. After the viewer gets bludgeoned over the head with how much Trinity and Neo love each other, Trinity unceremoniously dies, letting Neo go on his merry way to politely ask the machines (named 'Deus ex Machina') to stop destroying all humans. The machines (plagued by rapidly multiplying Smiths) cry out to Neo for help, and, after a cuddle sesh, he sacrifices himself. The automatons are so touched by Neo's gesture, they end the war, and carry his body off someplace for it to rot, alone.

How technology is killing us:
We've been over this in the first 'Matrix,' which, seriously, you can't hate on. It's a fun, mind-bending film that is tarnished only by its sequels. The machines need humans for... harvesting? Something? Whatever, they seem pretty happy in their robo-city with weird lights. We had some war with them, and killing humans is just what they do best.

What SHOULD have killed us:
The unhealthy, disease-infested sex pile that would have been life in Zion.

How the movie failed:
Honest confession: The first time your author saw this, she had been sipping on one too many egg nogs. At the time, the movie made no sense. Now that she's sober, it makes even less sense, and emerges as an atrocious, violent and vicious script. (And who allowed the Brother and Sister Wachowski to write Trinity's death-throe line: "Kiss me, once more... kiss me"?) But the real culprit is the nick-of-timing; this movie relies so heavily on an alignment of coincidences (e.g., Neo beating Smith at just the right moment, Zee shooting the drill right before it enters Zion, the Hammer returning just as the machines attack) that we eventually started throwing things at the screen, and returned to the warm, comforting embrace of the nog. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but this is just lazy.

Fright factor:
Eight. How someone funded this so heavily (and how it actually made money back) gives us shivers.



One Missed Call (2008)

one missed call
"What Will It Sound Like When You Die?" is the real tagline for this remake of the already-meh 2003 thriller 'Chakushin Ari' by 'Ichi The Killer' director Takashi Miike. To us, death sounds like watching this 87-minute movie about med students who are mercifully dispatched from the dramatis personae after they get a call on their cell phones. No one's sure why all of these attractive young things who live in inexplicably expensive homes have fallen prey to murderous beeps and bloops, but it has something to do with ghosts, maybe. Shannyn Sossamon plays a main character so forgettable that we forgot her name. Ed Burns's cop is a smoky-voiced DILF and Sossamon's sexual foil.

How technology is killing us:
People start getting phone calls, and they're all like, "That's not my ringtone!" And then they're killed in a variety of lackluster ways. The calls come from the future, are each timestamped with the moment the recipient will die, and each play an audio recording of the last ten seconds of his or her life. No one, however, seems to feel like taking any preventative measure to protect themselves from preordained death. (Except for the girl who opts for a televised exorcism with Leland Palmer of 'Twin Peaks' -- bad idea.) The message: technology makes us comfortable and lazy, and then kills us. Deep.

What SHOULD have killed us:
The really, really lazy acting. After Sossamon witnesses the gruesome murder-by-train of her best friend, she doesn't shed a tear at the wake, and even seems kind of bored with the proceedings -- as does everyone else. Also, the plot stops making any kind of sense about two-thirds of the way through, and Margaret Cho -- yes, MARGARET CHO -- plays an ineffectual detective with about three speaking lines. The horror!

How the movie failed:
Can we just say that Rotten Tomatoes called this one of the worst films of the decade? More to the point: the completely ludicrous and nonsensical "explanation" for why people are dying by voicemail is wholly inscrutable, even by the physics of the Fantasy Narnia Imaginarium of Acid-Trip Wonderdreams. (Hey, we don't expect films -- especially horror films -- to follow the logic of reality, but you have to at least maintain some kind of connection to the world of the viewer.) Spoiler: There's this corpse mother who's actually semi-alive and calling these people FROM THE FUTURE inside an A/C vent, 'cause her ghost daughter wants some kind of revenge against people she's never met after she dies of an asthma attack like a year prior -- and Shannyn Sossamon and Ed Burns do not even have sex. The end.

Fright factor:
Zero. Period.



Brainscan (1994)

Brainscan
Poor Edward Furlong. Even before he suffered the indignity of appearing in 'The Crow: Wicked Prayer' alongside the inimitable Tara Reid, he began to dismantle all of the cred he'd built up as John Connor by appearing in some godawful films. In 'Brainscan,' Furlong plays the young Michael who, like every introverted teenage boy, spends his free time creepily filming the girl-next-door as she prances about in her underthings. (Seriously, what was with '90s movies and sympathetic peeping toms?) He's also into other typical boy stuff, like gory video games, industrial music and horror films. His stock character of a best friend introduces him to Brainscan -- "the ultimate experience in interactive terror" -- and suddenly Michael starts murdering people left and right. But was it only a game? Psychological thriller!

How technology is killing us:
Brainscan introduces the nefarious Trickster (played by T. Ryder Smith, who subsequently never had a real film role again, unless you count 'Waiter' in 2004's 'Birth'), who is part of the video game and the guiding force behind Michael's transformation into a bloodthirsty killer. There's no scientific explanation as to how Trickster -- who Roger Ebert described as looking like "Alice Cooper on the third day of the wake" -- has suddenly escaped the confines of the game, but we guess it's because he's "interactive," a buzzword the film apparently loaded with deep meaning. Michael thinks he's only playing a game when he lops off a neighbor's foot after stabbing him with a chef's knife. Guess again, Michael!

What SHOULD have killed us:
Hilariously bad computer interfaces and Furlong's girl-scream acting technique.

How the movie failed:
Maybe it was the 100-percent cop-out of an ending or the comically bad CGI. Maybe it was the scene in which Michael, possessed by some unquenchable blood-lust, is getting ready to stab the girl of his dreams with a pair of scissors. Even though he's murdered four or five people, she says, "I don't care what you've done -- I love you!" What the hell kind of horrible message is that?

Fright factor:
One. The thing that terrified us the most is that we remember liking this movie at the wee age of 13, and that makes us feel old and dumb.



Virtuosity (1995)

Virtuosity
Did America give Russell Crowe his famously bad temper? Before 1995's 'Virtuosity,' he'd only appeared as a smiling heartthrob in Australian romantic comedies and dramas. Then we gave him a taste of Hollywood-style mania as Sid 6.7, a virtual amalgam of serial killers who is birthed IRL, hatching from a giant blue egg with the help of a zillion 'nanobots.' (Truth.) Denzel Washington plays the anti-hero Parker Barnes, an ex-cop serving a 17-year prison sentence for spraying bullets into a bunch of terrorists who killed his family. (We figure he'd get manslaughter maybe, but whatever.) When Sid escapes the virtual world and goes on a killing spree, the Powers That Be are forced to release the convicted felon to hunt the virtual killer down -- just like in real life.

How technology is killing us:
Sid bites, stabs, shoots, explodes and breaks the necks of so many people that we gave up on the body count. But, shockingly, the premise that a computer program could be made real with the help of nanotechnology is not completely implausible. Sid's programming may fail on several counts -- in that he's somehow imbued with the minds of long-dead killers, as opposed to just mimicking their psychological profiles -- but we have to say that 'Virtuosity' was probably one of the more realistic plots among our picks. That, of course, doesn't say much.

What SHOULD have killed us:
Russell Crowe's cartoon hyena laugh and pimp suit. They worked well for the Joker -- not so much for Sid.

How the movie failed:
Basic inconsistencies! Since the nanobots bless Sid with near-immortality and the strength of Kong, Denzel's character shouldn't -- mind you, shouldn't -- stand a chance. Yet when Lt. Parker Barnes chokes the lungless Sid, it somehow works. And how about when the listless throwaway of a female protagonist -- who's apparently some kind of criminology expert -- recoils with nausea when she sees a corpse? Maybe she should pick another line of work.

Fright factor:
Two. Sid heals his wounds by munching on fistfuls of shattered glass. We ickily feel like that's a snapshot of Crowe's real-life morning regimen.



The Signal (2007)

The Signal
Indie-filmmakers David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry set out to make a relatively low-budget film about a signal (you know, the one in the title) broadcast over a city called Terminus (seriously) that, on New Year's Eve, makes everyone go insane. The protagonist, Maya, is cheating on her already-loopy husband with dopey-faced Ben, who proposes they run away together. When the poop hits the fan on the 31st, Maya and Ben look for each other, while the husband -- who has gone absolutely nuts -- hunts the lovers. Oh, also, there is an interlude at a dinner party, where the scorned hubby unexpectedly appears, and it goes horribly awry.

How technology is killing us:
Well, it is never particularly clear. "THE SIGNAL" (said in all-caps by the characters, over and over) is messing with brainwaves, and making people kill each other. (Or, is it just amplifying their already grating traits? It's never clear.) Ben realizes it "is a lie," and, once you realize it "is a lie," apparently, you gain control of yourself again.

What SHOULD have killed us:
Three directors, three "transmissions", three movies. The shifts in tone are as violent as the movie itself, and the film could have benefited from a slasher. A word slasher, that is, nixing lines like: "Your wife left you, alone, tied to a chair, helpless so the world can take your life and the savages can feast on your bloody remains."

How the movie failed:
Knocking on indie directors never makes us feel good, but with three people at the helm, the movie was wildly uneven. The first part was actually quite good, using its low-budget to allude to the unseen. The middle part, a deranged New Year's Eve party, was filled with black comedy, and was a nice break, but dragged on. The end, of course, relied on tired tropes and indie clichés, like love will conquer all, which only works when the viewer believes in love and doesn't feel guilty about the fact that our main protagonist is a cheater. Why do Ben and Maya love each other? Who knows, but that's only one of many unanswered questions. (Others being why did you smoosh three movies into one? Why didn't anyone actually turn off the TV?)

Fright Factor:
Six. The confrontation between Maya and her jealous husband is tense and frightening, but then the torture porn of the latter part just can't be taken seriously.



Tags: brainscan, feardotcom, features, lawnmower man, LawnmowerMan, movies, one missed call, OneMissedCall, pulse, the matrix, The Matrix Revolutions, the ring, the signal, TheMatrix, TheMatrixRevolutions, TheRing, TheSignal, virtuosity, white noise, WhiteNoise

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