Oh, it’s the best time of year! The weather is just starting to turn chilly, so you get a great excuse to stay inside with a cup of something warm and binge watch some terrible yet awesome movies, and with Halloween almost upon us, horror ends up right at the top of your Netflix queue. But why are we talking about cheesy horror movies on a VR company website? Oh, my friend, you are in for a treat, because today we are going to talk about some of the weirdest horror movies to feature virtual reality!
Now, to start, before we get into any specific films, we need to reiterate, these movies are WEIRD. In fact, we could probably get away with just listing the title of each film followed by the synonym entry for “weird” from the Google thesaurus and call it a day. These are going to be some truly bizarre films, and should by no means be held for their accuracy of the virtual technology they’re trying to portray. With that understanding in place, let’s take a look at our choices.
Just looking at the cast, you would expect Virtuosity to be a great film. Denzel Washington is one of the best leading man actors of our current generation, and Russell Crowe is by no means a slouch either. Both have a long and respectable resume that would please just about any member of the Academy. Virtuosity though would probably be left off of those resumes if either actor had anything to say about it. Set in a future where virtual reality is being developed to train police officers, Virtuosity introduces us to Crowe’s SID, which stands for “Sadistic, Intelligent, and Dangerous” a VR program designed with the psychology of all of history’s worst serial killers. The program is designed to train police offices, but is being tested with convicted criminals. The program starts killing the test subjects, and is ordered shut down. Instead, the programer uses nanotechnology (because why not throw in everything that Hollywood doesn’t understand into the plot?) to bring SID to life. SID begins a crime spree through Los Angeles taking hostages and killing innocent bystanders, so the authorities turn to the only criminal to beat the program in training. Denzel Washington plays Parker Barnes, a disgraced former police officer who was sent to prison for killing the man who murdered his family, but also accidentally killing bystanders in the process. He’s freed from prison to hunt down SID in an increasingly violent chase. Denzel puts forth a performance that shows he’s a great actor, but you can’t help but feel like he’s being forced to be there. Russell Crowe, on the other hand, seems to be having the time of his life, hamming it up as something like The Joker mixed with General Maximus Decimus Meridius.
Brett Leonard was the director of Virtuosity, but three years before he directed another film centering on virtual reality, Lawnmower Man. Originally, this movie was called “Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man,” but Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed. We honestly can’t blame him, first because the movie has nothing to do with the similarly titled short story by King it’s supposedly based on. The original story was about an interdimensional being that appears as a killer lawnmower. For the movie, Leonard met with Jaron Lanier, one of the early pioneers of virtual reality technology, and created a whole new plot. It starts as a twisted version of the classic short story “Flowers for Algernon,” with a scientist using a combination of virtual reality training and chemical treatments to take Jeff Fahey as Jobe Smith, a local landscaper with mental disabilities and train him to become a genius. A shadowy military representative sabotages the experiment though by swapping out the medication being used for a formula previously developed to make super soldiers, designed to give increased aggression to the subject. Jobe gains telepathic powers and begins to kill off people who teased or bullied him from before he gained his new super intelligence. He then uploads himself into the computer, becoming the all digital Lawnmower Man. Eventually, the military and the scientist have to come after him, ending in a dramatic explosion, with Lawnmower Man, recovering his humanity at the last moment to save a neighbor boy who had been his friend before. The movie ends with a final shot that hints the Lawnmower Man may still be out there, now living on the internet. The technology for this movie was incredibly inventive. Leonard befriended not only Lanier, but also Steve Jobs and a number of other early tech luminaries. Together, they had introduced Leonard to “Cyberthon,” an event sponsored by the Whole Earth Institute, featuring cyber art projects by such groups as VPL Technologies, Atari, and Golden Gate Interactive, and speakers such as William Gibson and Jaron Lanier. This cyber art culture stuck with Leonard and inspired him to bring a unusual vision of the virtual world to the movie. Even twenty years later, Lawnmower Man is a unique movie to watch.
Oh poor Jennifer Lopez, you had a great music career, but your movie career was not so great. “Style over substance” comes up a lot in reviews of this movie, who’s plot feels like someone watched “Silence of the Lambs” while on some very strange chemical substances. Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a child psychologist who specializes in using experimental virtual reality to enter the minds of coma patients and bring them to consciousness. She’s brought in to help when a serial killer, Carl Rudolph Stargher (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) falls into a coma after having kidnapped a woman. The FBI asks her to use the same technology to enter Stargher’s mind to find out where he’s hidden his victim, who’s going to die in an automated trap he’s hidden her in. The plot, technically, is fairly simple from there, with Lopez’s character going through the serial killer’s mind, but the dreamlike visuals used to show her exploration of his consciousness become more and more untethered. The movie was a directorial debut for Tarsem Singh, who brought a strange yet beautiful visual style he’d honed in a career directing music videos like “Losing My Religion” by REM. The special effects and artistic set pieces drew from a variety of inspirations to leave the movie with a flair all of its own.
“Written, directed, and produced by David Cronenberg” is really all it should take to get you to watch this movie. It also should prepare you for just how WEIRD this movie is. We know we said up at the introduction that “weird” could be applied to any of the movies we were listing, but honestly, this movie takes it to a whole new level. Centered around the development of “biotechnology virtual reality game consoles,” Existenz delves into the question of, appropriately, existence. From there the movie gets wrapped up into an increasingly convoluted plot, with Jude Law playing a marketing/PR representative who’s tasked with keeping a genius game designer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh alive despite a price put on her head. From there, the story wraps into more and more twists, which we simply cannot spoil here in good conscious. The depiction of virtual reality is vastly different from any other, leaning heavily on the body horror aesthetic that Cronenberg specialized in at that point in his career. Rather than sleek computers designed to look like something out of Star Trek, game players plug in using these strange consoles that the movie states are made from harvested organs from reptiles, amphibians, and bugs, and they look very much like it. VR Consoles are characterized as “alive” with one character treating theirs much like a beloved pet. Existenz is a movie that’s designed to sit with you for a while, and despite several trains of broken logic, will have you thinking about a variety of questions when you’re done.
Well, we hope this gets you started, because there’s so many more movies we could have added to the list! Plan yourself a VR themed Halloween movie night soon, and be sure to let us know how it goes!