Internet horror continues to be big business, but for every Unfriended or The Den, there’s a Friend Request. Russian offering #Blue_Whale lands somewhere in between the two. Not convincingly creepy enough to scare you off social media for good but loaded with enough twists and turns to keep you mostly entertained, Anna Zaytseva’s feature debut is impressive for what it’s attempting to do more so than what it actually accomplishes. If nothing else, this represents a new flavor of internet horror that doesn’t rely on some lame-ass ghost to make its point – something even Unfriended struggled with, to be fair. This is still a burgeoning subgenre, and, on this evidence, there are plenty more horrifying real-life stories to mine for it.
#Blue_Whale is based on actual cybercrimes that tore through Eastern Europe at one stage, and allegedly resulted in more than 130 deaths. The Japanese Momo hoax, which will likely be familiar even to less net-savvy users, is a clear influence, particularly considering the ghoul in question wears a scary melting-face mask and long black wig (bitch stole my look, for real). The film is co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov and shot in the Screenlife storytelling format he pioneered in the likes of Searching, Profile, and, yes, Unfriended. However it’s immediately less convincing than those superior films because the score is omnipresent and never explained, while the footage from a YouTube rip-off looks incredibly dodgy – and not in a good way. Watching a kid step in front of a train is obviously horrifying, but when terrible CGI is involved, it loses its lustre and considering this is the first suicide we see onscreen, it doesn’t exactly bode well for what’s to come.
The kid in question, Yulya, is the younger sister of our heroine, Dana (Anna Potebnya), a whip-smart young woman who realizes something is up after discovering her dearly departed sibling had a whole other secret life online, including what was essentially an Only Fans account. Key to this secret social media existence was Yulya’s involvement in the titular game, run by Ada Morte, a scary goth lady with an ominous Netbook (standing in for Facebook) account – Yulya was so invested she even had a blue whale as her wallpaper. There are 21 tasks to complete, which seems like a lot, and immediately Dana guesses the final one is death (LOL?). Things escalate quickly, to threats, dangerous excursions into the woods, and a creepy video that’s like a mixture of The Ring and something Slipknot would’ve put out back when they were mostly famous for sniffing dead crows and puking into their own masks before shows.
The featured kids are all terribly melodramatic, which is probably realistic but still kind of annoying to watch, particularly Dana’s love interest whose suicidal ideation is arguably the most authentic element of the entire thing. It’s potent and sensitively handled, but Zaytseva fumbles the ball when it’s time to tie all the disparate elements of her increasingly convoluted story together. The immediacy of the Screenlife format charges each moment with urgency, but the only real scares to speak of are courtesy of Ada Morte popping up unexpectedly, in a move that was already generic ten years ago. Still, a real person is always scarier than some dumb-looking ghost, so #Blue_Whale at the very least has that going for it. And the mask is definitely scary, too, which helps a lot.
There are some well-judged moments of levity too, and they’re notable precisely because the premise is so dark, so any lightness is a major boon. A joke about how only old people listen to Motorhead, the streaming comments during a live broadcast, and general internet references help alleviate the story’s drudgery somewhat. However, for a movie that takes place almost entirely online, #Blue_Whale doesn’t contain nearly enough internet-based commentary overall. It’s difficult to ascertain what the filmmakers’ perspective on these horrifying events is, since their basis in reality makes some of the more melodramatic moments involving hanging off buildings, for example, much queasier. The ending, meanwhile, is a bit of a non-event even if the requisite rug-pull suggests it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
#Blue_Whale is really silly and convoluted, but the performances from the young, mostly unknown cast are strong and committed, and there are some genuinely scary moments buried underneath all the creepypasta nonsense. Neither groundbreaking nor a train wreck, Zaytseva’s debut feature suggests better things ahead for a new voice with an interesting vision, who perhaps needs just a little more honing behind the scenes to truly make something memorable.
WICKED RATING: 6/10