Virtually every thriller or horror movie about computer technology and the internet hits on the same irony: these devices are supposed to bring all us closer together - but instead they do the opposite, creating a network of individuals isolated from the whole of humanity.
When COVID-19 first started making an impact around the globe, the pandemic felt eerily familiar to movie buffs, all thanks to decades of films about contagions and outbreaks. Now, the coronavirus has forced much of the world to retreat indoors, cancel all plans for the foreseeable future and practise social distancing. Perhaps it isn't that surprising that a filmmaker was thoughtful enough to connect the dots between the isolation caused by technology and these new restrictions triggered by the coronavirus.
Michael Beets' 'In The Shadow It Waits' welcomes us to Australia's new normal: a teleconference team meeting between a bunch of 20-somethings sitting at home during pandemic lockdown. Pat (Robert Pham), the organised team leader, is missing his family in Vietnam. Jace (Eddie Orton) is a home workout enthusiast who regrets not isolating with Hanna (Nalani Wakita) and is irritated by her omnipresent, zen platitude espousing yoga-instructor housemate Steve (S.C. Wilson). Jules (Vessela Karadjova) is a social media influencer with plenty of online attention who privately longs for a lost relationship.
During a mid-meeting break for food, Meg (Naomi Plucke) gets bored. She begins scrolling through random internet urban legends before clicking on billybillybilly.net, where she plays a spooky "internet screamer" game and forwards it to her friends in an email. Creepiness ensues.
'In The Shadow It Waits' takes place mostly on the screens of laptops and phones, with a few carefully positioned cameras in dimly-lit hallways. The plot is silly but the pace is brisk, the themes are frighteningly timely and the technique is astounding. The film is also a lot of fun - credit goes to the actors for injecting some lightness into the more comedic scenes, along with nuance. I was particularly impressed by Robert Pham and Vessela Karadjova, playing two characters who are lonely for very different reasons.
I haven't read much about the movie's background, so it's not clear to me how much of it was created in post-production, but there's not a moment in this semi-real-time thriller that doesn't take place inside an apartment building. With 61 scenes shot on 58 cameras for actors to perform live from their own homes in different states across Australia - cinematographer Viktor Wallmark advised them on how to set up their cameras and lighting - 'In The Shadow It Waits' is an impressive feat of technical resourcefulness. Some of the eeriest moments are unbroken shots, beginning as barely noticed action in the background, where Wallmark demonstrates how video conferencing apps like Skype can provide a fresh twist on the mirror-scare.
Beets spins a bare-bones plot into a surprisingly profound meditation on the way that computers reflect our loneliness back at us.
The cinematic reference points seem to be David F. Sandbergs's 'Lights Out', Jordan Peele's 'Us', Levan Gabriadze's underrated, semi-experimental 'Unfriended' and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 'Pulse', the gold standard of J-horror ('The Grudge', et al) ghost stories. That sub-genre is worth noting. Not only was it rife with shadowy, croaking ghosts, but it focused on the way young Japanese people were becoming increasingly isolated thanks to advances in technology, the internet boom of the 90s, and overcrowded cities (by the end of the century, Tokyo was among the most densely packed in the world). While 'In The Shadow It Waits' never outright talks about how humans in the internet age are like dots that never connect, Beets makes that point felt in the way his characters occupy these lonely corners of their cities, and might be doomed, in life and the afterlife, to wander around in isolated pods without coming into meaningful contact with anyone else.
What makes 'In The Shadow It Waits' such an interesting journey into the heart of technological darkness is the way that Beets spins a bare-bones plot into a surprisingly profound meditation on the way that computers reflect our loneliness back at us. What ultimately drove it home for me is a combination of the way the emptiness and dread grows exponentially.
Whatever the intent, 'In The Shadow It Waits' is scarily on the money, bristling with images that capture the alienation of our hyperconnected but forcibly isolated digital age. In 2020, researchers are talking up an epidemic of loneliness linked to COVID-19 lockdowns, and it's a spectre that stalks every frame of Michael Beets' film. This is filmmaking reacting to the trauma the entire world is experiencing.