The History of Screenlife Films: 10 Key Movies in An Exciting New Genre

In this age of social media and ubiquitous internet, we’re all obsessed with screens. The burgeoning movie subgenre often known as screenlife films, which take place entirely on laptop and phone screens, is a response to our highly online lives spent locked in on our devices. Screenlife films explore how our digital personas differ from who we are offscreen, the ways casual cruelty can be enabled through the distance created by posts and avatars, and the visual claustrophobia of crowded Zooms and chatrooms. They turn familiar online landscapes like Instagram and Skype into canvasses for storytelling.

Most screenlife films fall into the horror category, in no small part because horror films can be produced quickly and inexpensively, without a reliance on A-list actors or expansive sets. 2020’s critical darling HOST, made by a tiny cast and crew of film school friends in the U.K., is proof that access to technology can democratize creativity in promising ways. But producer Timur Bekmambetov, who recently signed a five-picture deal to make films with Universal under his “Screenlife” banner, sees the medium expanding into every genre soon enough, just as technology has crept into virtually all facets of modern life.

“How can you tell a story about robbing a bank today without showing the screen of the hacker? There is no reason to pull a gun out and shoot, because there’s no money in today’s banks,” said Bekmambetov. “There are digits, numbers. It means bank robbery today is very different.”

Essentially an offshoot of the found footage genre, as seen in low-budget blockbusters like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity, screenlife films reach for authenticity with highly improvised dialogue and younger casts whose internet behavior mirrors our own. They thrive off the tacit acceptance that there’s always some sort of camera looking at us these days.

“We know now that people will record and upload their own deaths. Not to say that as society continues to decay horror movies will grow more plausible, but obviously cameras aren’t going away,” said Simon Barrett, whose short screenlife film, The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, was part of the popular 2012 horror anthology V/H/S.

Here are ten key screenlife films to watch, with insight from the innovative directors, writers, actors, and producers who made them.

Stephanie Dees in The Collingswood Story, 2006.Courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment

The Collingswood Story (2002) (Unavailable to stream)

The history of screenlife films more or less begins with this webcam thriller that marries the inherent turmoil of a long-distance relationship with a dose of supernatural fright. The movie received its “first and only online premiere” via horror outlet Dread Central in 2011, and it’s now hard enough to find that desperate Redditors frequently ask one another for personal links.

In some ways, Collingswood is a logical extension of the found footage wave–like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, it clocks in under 90 minutes and scratches a certain voyeuristic itch. The movie stars Stephanie Dees and Johnny Burton as Rebecca and John, a young couple dating via webcam after the former went away to college in Collingswood, NJ. When they meet an online psychic, they learn about satanic horror in the town and, most pressingly, the very house where Rebecca lives. Critical reception was mixed.

It’s extremely difficult to procure, but any screenlife completist should make an effort to track down The Collingswood Story, if only to appreciate how far webcam technology has come in two decades.

The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (2012) (Stream on Amazon)

Joe Swanberg, primarily known for earnest, lowkey dramedies like Drinking Buddies and Nights and Weekends, teamed with indie horror writer Simon Barrett for this unsettling mix of body horror, alien invasion, and romantic gaslighting. Emily deploys Swanberg’s naturalistic approach to decidedly different ends than usual. “People either really liked it and thought it was very authentic and frightening or they thought we completely half-assed it and mumblecored it up,” said Barrett—“that it was just two people talking.”

Emily stars Helen Rogers as the title character and Daniel Kaufman as her boyfriend, James, who communicate via video chat. As Emily starts to experience paranormal phenomena and bodily disturbances (a scene where she slices open her arm to investigate a strange bump is particularly harrowing), the plot thickens, and what seemed like a classic haunted house film takes an extraterrestrial turn. Barrett vividly renders the protagonist in such a way where it’s easy to see things through her eyes. When the final twist is revealed, we aren’t just upset about the fate of humanity, we’re sickened for Emily.

Production time was extremely limited, meaning that Swanberg and Barrett had to forgo elaborate VFX and create simple camera mounts to mimic the effect of shooting with laptop webcams. Emily feels a little like a product of a bygone era, but as Barrett acknowledges, “When you’re working with a modern technology and you’re trying to make it look current, all you’re guaranteeing is that your film is gonna look absolutely dated in a few years.”

Open Windows (2014) (Stream on Amazon)

This white-knuckle cyberthriller directed by Nacho Vigalondo explores vital themes–bodily autonomy, the dehumanization of celebrities, the insidiousness of many a man’s nice, nerdy online persona. The problem is that it lacks the visual cohesion of HOST or Searching, making it a chaotic, challenging watch.

In the age of data leaks, privacy violations, and trauma being commodified, Vigalondo’s story of a male blogger and a female film star entangled in a web of manipulation feels admirable, if somewhat convoluted. As an exploration of internet celebrity and the entitlement many feel to the bodies of famous women, Open Windows is thought-provoking, though the twisty hacker plot unfolding underneath feels a bit rote.

Unfriended (2014) (Stream on Netflix)

In some ways, this pulpy, cheap teen horror movie made for $1 million was Bekmambetov’s proof-of-concept for his grand vision of Screenlife. “It was important for me to make it as a movie, not as a short or some YouTube video, because it was a statement that Screenlife is not just a gimmicky, one-time trick,” he said. “It’s a new film language.”

Though the film’s supernatural components aren’t revolutionary, it’s most harrowing as a story of cyberbullying and adolescent barbarism, two themes for which a desktop computer movie is perfectly suited. The teens, played by young actors like Moses Storm and Shelley Hennig, feel if not three-dimensional, then two-dimensional in a way young millennials can genuinely be. There’s a Saw-like quality to the escalating Never Have I Ever game the characters are forced to play, but instead of relying on pure physical torture, it forces the leads to confront how they have wronged one another, adding narrative depth.

Andrea Russett and Laine Neil in Sickhouse, 2016.Everett Collection / Courtesy of Indigenous Media

Sickhouse (2016) (Purchase on Amazon)

Hannah Macpherson’s Sickhouse switches things up by using a smartphone instead of a computer as the framing device. The film premiered on Snapchat, starring social media personality Andrea Russett and harnessing her large following to drive interest.

“My actual version of horror is teenagers on social media. All the work I’m doing right now is pretty much about how the smartphone is going to ruin the younger generation,” Macpherson told Vice. “It was a social experiment that was unlike anything I’ve done since.”

The release of Sickhouse highlights a certain formal advantage that screenlife films have over found footage movies, particularly if the filmmaker’s goal is to make audiences wonder whether they’re actually watching something true unfold in 10 second chunks.

“We put it out over five days in real time, and people thought it was real,” Macpherson explained. Another shrewd choice was to tell a story around a fictionalized version of a real-life influencer encountering the paranormal. It explains why this character is constantly posting, and why the people in her orbit naturally are doing the same.

“The real horror of Sickhouse, the thing that differentiates it, for me, from Blair Witch, is they won’t stop Snapchatting,” said Macpherson. “These kids are gonna document their own deaths, basically.” Ultimately, Sickhouse gets bogged down by the cliches of teen-centric horror films, and from a plotting standpoint it lacks the novelty of Searching or HOST. Watched traditionally, outside of the Snapchat format, the seams in the narrative really start to show. But the use of Snapchat may prove to be as influential as anything on this list.

Searching (2018) (Rent or buy on Amazon)

John Cho is the biggest star to appear in a screen-only film to date. His performance, along with strong contributions from Debra Messing and Michelle La, helped this thriller about a father combing social media accounts to find his missing daughter reach a broader audience. But when the idea was presented to Cho by former Google employee and first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty, he couldn’t quite picture how it would end up.

“It was difficult to imagine it. As a traditional moviegoer, I was trying to understand what the product would look like. But it was also procedural in the sense that I was wondering, ‘How are you supposed to act without a person? How does that work?’” Cho said. “I find it very difficult to self-tape, to do any video messages. I don’t know where to look, it drives me crazy to do that.”

Cho almost passed on the film, but he wound up with a nuanced lead role that showed off his empathetic brand of acting. “I think the crux of my pushback with Aneesh was, ‘Do we have to do this whole movie on screen?’” Cho laughed. “[But] it worked, and the fact that we established that after his wife had passed he was more absent from his daughter’s life and in the computer, and the fact that he was in the tech world to begin with, it was justified.”

John Cho in Searching, 2018.Everett Collection / Courtesy of Sebastian Baron for Screen Gems

Searching frequently uses Skype calls to frame the character interactions, but by incorporating Facebook, Instagram, and calendar apps, it offers one of the more nuanced depictions of life online that we’ve seen yet. It also highlights the disconnect between a parent’s perception of their child and how they actually present themselves online.

Searching may go down as the movie most crucial to proving the mainstream financial viability of screenlife. It earned over $26 million domestically and $75 million in total worldwide against a $1 million budget. Getting it made was a herculean task of production design for Chaganty and his five-person team, who worked on a pair of iMacs for 18 months.

“Every single line of text and every photo, everything that you see in this movie, was created from scratch,” he said. Searching ends on a very tidy note Slot, but the cast is strong throughout, and the twists in its script feel genuinely earned, never cheap.

Host (2020) (Stream on Shudder)

It’s fitting that one of the few unlikely hits to emerge in 2020 was a horror film that captured the terrors of Zoom. Directed by Rob Savage, HOST featured a cast of young British actors and real-life friends in a séance gone wrong. The movie itself was even inspired by a virtual prank.

“A bunch of us were hanging out on Zoom, and one day, as you do, I decided to trick my friends into thinking that a zombie had eaten me on a Zoom call,” said Savage. “That became this little viral video, and it was really off the back of that that we started getting interest in some sort of longer version.”

Haley Bishop in Host, 2020.Everett Collection Courtesy of ©AMC / Shudder

HOST was filmed in a frenetic two weeks, as the team wanted to make sure the film came out while we were all still cooped up for maximum effect.

The rapturous reception HOST received was well deserved for a few reasons. First, the cast, anchored by Haley Bishop but featuring charming turns from Jemma Moore and Emma Louise Webb, gave the characters more depth than the usual crew of fodder for a malevolent spirit. Second, the script maximized the naturalistic reactions of the actors by holding back key intense moments. And because the movie is set during the pandemic, there’s never a second where you wonder whether the characters should simply turn off their computers—a classic flaw of screenlife films and found footage alike.

“In Blair Witch, you think, ‘Why didn’t they put the cameras down and leave?’ Someone was saying how HOST doesn’t feel that way,” Bishop said. “A lot of people said they don’t feel like the girls should just be like, ‘Fuck this. I’m leaving the meeting. Goodbye.’ Because this is the only way you can communicate with your friends, especially when we were fully in lockdown.”

Spree (2020) (Stream on Hulu)

This pitch black satire of influencer culture stars Joe Keery from Stranger Things as a gleeful psychopath whose years of posting into the void finally cause him to snap and start murdering people on a livestream. The film’s thoughts on life online are not particularly novel and rather cynical, but Spree holds your attention with a barrage of sights and sounds (“Hideous to look at and agonizing to listen to,” The New York Times dubbed it). But its craven and thin characters care solely about clout, making the film come off as the product of someone who doesn’t have much to say about social media beyond that they hate it. It’s more effective as an examination of violence as a means to attention, something director Eugene Kotlyarenko has discussed in the press.

Spree’s use of the phone screen and livestream format are clever, but there are plenty of other films like Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade that offer genuinely fresh and funny critiques of social media, with characters who stand out for the right reasons.

Valene Kane in Profile, 2018. Everett Collection / Courtesy of Focus Features

Profile (2021) (Not yet available to stream)

A journalist falling in too deep with their source is a classic film concept, but Timur Bekmambetov adds a twist by depicting the digital romance between an investigative journalist and an ISIS member who is recruiting her, unaware of her true identity.

Bekmambetov said that showing Profile to audiences emphasized to him how high the bar is for a realistic portrayal of computer usage. “I had a test screening and I asked the audience ‘Did you see any mistakes?’ They said, ‘She sent him an email and she forgot to put the dot between gmail and com, and he answered. How could it be?’ Can you imagine the level of accuracy and intention?” Bekmambetov said. “On the internet, in Screenlife, the viewer is focusing and it’s their world. They immediately feel every mistake, every fake, every lie on screen.”

Profile begins to spiral plot-wise as it reaches the third act. Tonally, it’s perhaps closest to Searching, though it lacks a lead character quite as sympathetic as Cho’s worried father. Putting the quality of the film aside, the decision to tackle this specific real-world problem–it was inspired by Anna Erelle’s book In the Skin of a Jihadist, which chronicles her own undercover work online talking to an ISIS militant–is so bold your jaw is agape for the entire 105-minute run time.

R#J (2021) (Not yet released)

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Every generation gets a new take on Romeo and Juliet, so it’s logical that the Gen Z iteration would be a Screenlife production. Starring emerging talents Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel, R#J takes the timeless story of star-crossed lovers to the logical setting of Instagram and FaceTime. “It’s like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, but 25 years later,” said Bekmambetov.

The film has some really shrewd moments, from signaling danger through the start of a dozen concurrent Instagram Lives, to its integration of music by artists like Clairo. At times, it veers pretty hard into the aesthetic of the HBO series Euphoria, which itself has some of the grand melodrama of Luhrmann’s movie. Like that show, R#J has a very solid handle on how social media is used that masks some of its plotting shortcomings.

R#J includes Shakespearian dialogue, but more contemporary syntax for texts and posts. It’s one of a number of bold choices, including the use of real social media services and the camera moving around rather than sitting in a static, screen record mode. The dialogue juxtaposition is a little jarring, but the young actors do their best with it, and it’s always refreshing to see a racially diverse cast tackle Shakespeare.

Whether or not it’s the best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is sort of irrelevant, because it manages to feel genuinely fresh. Such is the power of the screenlife film–this new style of moviemaking can make something 400 years old seem new.

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