Short answer to this question: I kinda hope not.
I was first made aware of the new movie APP (Netherlands, 2013) a couple of months ago, when it was first being released VOD. The gimmick seemed fairly straightforward: you download an app to your phone, start it up, and enable the microphone, and the app syncs to the movie via sound cues, delivering content related to the film as it progresses. Honestly, it actually struck me as somewhat charming at first; it reminded me of nothing so much as one of the old retro theater tricks employed by people like William Castle. Castle was a carnival barker for movies, famous for shtick like attaching seat belts to keep moviegoers in their seats (during 1965’s I Saw What You Did), or installing buzzers under selected seats to trigger at suspenseful moments during a movie (1959’s The Tingler, memorably spoofed in Joe Dante’s 1990 nostalgia-fest Matinee!), or my personal favorite, the $1,000 life insurance policy all moviegoers had to sign in case they “died of fright” during the film (1958’s Macabre). This smartphone app seemed like merely the latest iteration in a long line of shtick meant to reel in the curious, P.T. Barnum-style. And kudos, APP, because it worked - here I am, dropping $6.99 for an On-Demand film I likely would’ve let go by, had it not been for your gimmick. Another thing it has in common with many of those Castle-produced schlockfests: it’s not particularly scary, nor particularly good. Never has the maxim “more interesting in theory than in practice” been so aptly applied.
Here’s the plot: a killer phone app slowly gains sentience and becomes malevolent, going on a killing spree.
I’m serious. That’s the whole story. I shit you not. It’s Lawnmower Man 2: Electric Boogaloo. Actually, it might be fairer to say it’s Lawnmower Man crossed with Final Destination, as the app performs several hilariously convoluted kills that wouldn’t be out of place in the latter franchise. (You know a movie isn’t going so well when your partner turns to you halfway through it and says, “That last scene was done much better by the Final Destination series.”) We follow our protagonist, Anna (Hannah Hoekstra, Germany’s answer to Anna Kendrick - perhaps the character name’s an homage?) as she goes about her schooling at university. Medical schooling, ostensibly, although we never see her study, wearing scrubs, or doing anything all that medical-y, frankly. The script might as well have just described her character as “Student, who does student-like things.”) She has a brother who was crippled in an accident, though his physical therapy is going well, and the doctor recommends an experimental procedure that would enable him to walk again. As he readies for the surgery (all it takes is implanting a small smartchip in his spine - stop me if you see where I’m going with this. Actually, stop the filmmakers), Anna Kendrick goes to a party where she runs into her high school ex, a brilliant computer science guy, there for mysterious purposes. (Wow, writing this out is really exacerbating the stupidity. It feels not unlike writing out the lyrics to punk rock songs - what seems fairly reasonable when matched by three distorted chords and pounding drums has a tendency to look like the ravings of simpletons when isolated from its soundtrack.) The morning after the party, Anna discovers a new app on her phone, called Iris (what’s that backwards? SPOOOOOKY), which begins to pop up at unwanted intervals - the middle of class, during phone calls - and soon begins to take control of her phone. Not only that, but it begins to spread to any other computer or phone in its vicinity, as it relishes taking private pictures, recordings (sometimes of its own volition), and then plastering them across every email address and internet portal it can find. Then the killings begin. Anna is soon racing against the clock to stop Iris and solve the mystery (I know, I know) before Iris destroys everything and everyone around her. (Including - guess who?!? - her brother and his little surgery’ed spine.)
Look, it’s important to take films on their own terms, but I think it’s fair to say that this movie’s terms are fairly low-grade, and open to some good-natured mockery. Anyone who makes their movie’s app screen villain look like a shittier version of the Lawnmower man isn’t asking to be held in the highest esteem. Go ahead, look ahead at the image I posted at the start - here’s our villain:
Here’s the Lawnmower man:
C+ for effort, APP. The movie is shot competently - nobody’s embarrassing themselves in the filmmaking 101 basics, here. And all the actors come out of this looking pretty solid, to be honest. Hoekstra, with her Anna Kendrick looks, actually has a verve and spunk I might compare to Kristen Bell (no stranger to bluffing her way through a terrible horror movie). There are some striking images, and faintly unexpected deaths, excepting the one terrible Final Destination-esque kill I mentioned above. (SPOILER ALERT - stop reading now if you want to be surprised, I’ll put an “END SPOILERS” notice after it’s over: this terrible death involves Anna’s best friend, and oh my God, is it a groaner. See, when Anna realizes they can’t delete the app - “It won’t delete!” is an honest-to-God bit of dialogue here, YOU’RE WELCOME, WORLD - she goes to a guy who gives them unregistered burner phones. Immediately after leaving his store, the guy plugs in her old phone to his computer, and Iris blows up his store. Cut to: police interviewing Anna and Sophie (her bestie), and once they’re cut free, her friend turns to her and says, all chipper, “So? Coming to my scuba diving exam? I’m all by myself without you! Gotta go!” And takes off. This girl was just yards away from being blown to smithereens ten minutes ago. You gotta admire the fortitude, if nothing else. Summa cum laude or bust!)
(END SPOILERS.) But let’s be honest: nobody is watching this film to be dazzled by an original story. We’re here because we’ve been promised a new millenium two-screen experience, a multimedia extravaganza, a second-screen source of spookiness, a terrifying trip into technologically-tripped-out terror - my goodness, it’s hard to step off the showbiz-shtick train once you’ve stepped on. I’m developing a new respect for William Castle. ANYHOO, I’m sure you’re curious: how was the app? To be honest, it drove me a little bit crazy. It didn’t trigger often enough to be a source of diversionary enhancement to the film, and it triggered frequently enough that I found myself constantly checking my phone screen nervously, worried I would miss some update. In other words, it was both completely distracting and wholly unfulfilling.
At times, it seemed like it was actually going to enhance the viewing experience. Characters off-screen would send each other text messages, or you would be privy to a bit of footage that had been recorded previously, and promised scares soon to come. Honestly, I could see a scary movie using this sort of technology in a fairly inventive way. But this film did not know how to deliver on that potential. And, more importantly, I found myself really disengaged from the events unfolding on my screen. When you’re constantly checking your phone for updates, it’s hard to genuinely invest yourself in the characters and events happening on your TV, let alone really get swept up in the story. By the end of the film, I was just waiting for the Iris face to appear and start cackling as it threatened me next. OH GUESS WHAT.
The main problem here is that, for the technology to effectively add to the creepiness, it would need to do precisely the kinds of things you would never let a random app have access to. Your pictures, your videos, your contacts - something that, hours after the movie was done, you could suddenly receive a text from someone you know, threatening something terrible. Or maybe pull up a selfie you had taken last week and add a skull-and-crossbones to it. The kind of thing that would actually freak you out. As is, this sort of thing has a hard time delivering - even when it does something that adds to your understanding of the story, the distraction disrupts your connection to what’s unfolding in front of you. I’m not sure how to resolve this contradiction, beyond the movie automatically pausing whenever it sends you information. And at the end of the day, the film is really handicapped by having to appeal to people watching the movie who may not have downloaded the app - by needing to make sense and be a cohesive whole to those without smartphone access, it essentially neuters any extra content that could actually make the app addition an enriching experience. It would be like watching Community, only every time Abed makes a reference, the show stops and explains to the audience exactly what he meant by that last comment. It would be unbearable. I can only imagine how sunk Gilmore Girls would’ve been by such a dictum.
Therefore, I remain skeptical, for the time being, about the use of second-screen technology. I know that I may be fighting the future on this one. Anybody who’s watched a popular AMC show in the past couple of years knows that a growing number of fans will sync their computers to begin the “two-screen experience” when a show starts. People like commenting in real time on their entertainment. People like seeing how others are reacting. And I get it, on a certain level. My wife live-tweets The Bachelorette, along with thousands of other people, on a weekly basis. But I have to argue for a line in the sand between entertainment you’re meant to stand at a distance from, and entertainment that succeeds only by pulling you into its world, and distracting you from your own, in order to make it effective. Horror films, arguably more than any other genre, rely on exactly this kind of interpellation; something can only be scary if you allow it to be. If you’ve ever walked into a room while someone else was watching a horror film, you know that allowing yourself to be interpellated by the film is a crucial element - without permitting yourself the indulgence of entering into the filmic universe, at least to some degree, you’re never going to be scared; you’ll just be passing through the room. APP is an experiment in new forms of movie-making; it’s also an experience of passing through a room where someone else is trying to be scared. You won’t be, and that’s a problem, for horror.