Actress-designer Tara Subkoff (When the Bough Breaks, All Over Me) brings her film, fashion and art expertise to #Horror, her first foray as a feature writer and director. Subkoff, the co-creator of the early aughts indie fashion line Imitation of Christ, has crafted a modern morality play embedded in a slasher pic. The film is a showcase for luxurious props, haunting works of art and expensive clothes and jewelry, but it’s encumbered by a muddled and unsurprising plot. #Horror is a prime example of style over substance.
The action in #Horror is set against a slumber party for the prep school elite, with a serial killer on the loose. Sofia Cox (Bridget McGarry) invites her junior high friends—aka “frenemies”—over to her parents’ house in middle-of-nowhere Connecticut. The home is more art gallery than Yankee farmhouse, with striking pieces on view by Subkoff’s husband, the renowned sculptor Urs Fischer (who curated all the film’s art), alongside works by Rob Pruitt, Dan Colen, Franz West and Steven Shearer. The director, along with her brother Daniel Subkoff, also an artist, served as the film’s production designers; their attention to set details is impeccable.
Subkoff, who grew up in a similar upscale Connecticut environment, includes a range of the (white) privileged kids found on a boarding school spectrum: the emotionally fragile, heavily medicated rich girl Cat (Haley Murphy); the overweight but sharp-tongued Georgie (Emma Adler); scholarship student Sam (Sadie Seelert); the bookish Francesca (Mina Sundwell); and the tall, beautiful Ava (Blue Lindeberg). Like many girls their age, members of this squad have image and self-esteem issues, which are masked by tweener bravado and online personas. The girls are all addicted to their phones, and an online game in which players earn more points for the meaner and crazier things said or done. The special effects, which include eye-catching animation and colorful onscreen graphics, illustrate the sport of cyberbullying. Yet while creative, the effects do little to connect the online and offline terror.
The girls’ parents—or the ones we meet anyway—are just as messed up as the kids. Sofia’s clueless folks, Alex (Chloë Sevigny) and Mr. Cox (Balthazar Getty), are too embroiled in their own mess of a marriage to pay attention to their daughter and her friends. Sofia’s dad is too busy trysting in his sports car to notice a killer with a knife lurking in the woods. Her mom, Alex, is more preoccupied with her dinner party, her husband’s affair and her AA meeting. A campy Sevigny perfectly captures the “Real Housewives of Connecticut” vibe as she drives to her 12-step meeting with a gin and tonic in the car’s cupholder. Cat’s dad, Dr. White (an over-the-top and blustery Timothy Hutton), has anger issues. Although the doctor scolds Cat for spending too much time texting and playing games on her phone, he pauses in the middle of their important conversation to play a Candy Crush-like app.
Subkoff called in a lot of favors from friends to appear in the film, and she’s assembled an impressive cast. In a nod to Natasha Lyonne’s early film The Slums of Beverly Hills, Lyonne plays Sam’s mom. This time around, it’s Sam who’s embarrassed by her family’s social status, and asks her mom not to drop her too close to Sofia’s house in their beater of a car. Lyonne’s Orange is the New Black castmate Taryn Manning also makes a quick appearance as Alex’s 12-step friend. While the veteran performers give decent turns as addled adults, the younger ensemble doesn’t quite have the range yet to convincingly portray the emotions of #Horror. The girls’ cattiness is believable, but when the slashing begins their fear doesn’t ring true.
Therein describes the basic problem with Subkoff’s plot: There are essentially two equally weighted storylines at work, and she could have created a more powerful film by narrowing her focus. On one hand, there’s the morality tale of how technology and cyberbullying destroy lives. Parents and kids are more interested in online relationships than those IRL (in real life), and violent online games help kids create cruel alter egos. Subkoff intended for the online bullying and stalking to mirror the escalation of the serial killer’s physical violence, but there’s no growing tension or suspense to keep the audience interested when “the big reveal” happens.
It’s a familiar trope—the killer in the woods hunting a bunch of school girls left home alone—and so much less terrifying than kids armed with their phones, social media accounts, and snark and spite. Despite the issues with #Horror’s plot and some of the performances, we’re still interested in seeing what Subkoff takes on next. She’s self-assured behind the camera with an eye for detail, and developing a distinctive, sleek style that’s worth a second chance.
Director: Tara Subkoff
Writer: Tara Subkoff
Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Timothy Hutton, Natasha Lyonne, Balthazar Getty, Taryn Manning, Stella Schnabel, Sadie Seelert, Haley Murphy, Bridget McGarry, Blue Lindberg, Mina Sundwall, Emma Adler, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, and Lydia Hearst
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.