In 2008, NBC aired Fear Itself. This is the unofficial third season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, a weekly anthology horror series where famous and emerging horror directors from around the world created original short horror films in any style they wanted to. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before the back half of Fear Itself aired on television. The last five episodes were released exclusively on the NBC website and the DBD box set in 2009.
It’s Halloween night and Shelby and Becca decide to make their own spirit box, a method of talking to spirits with a little more prep work than taking a Ouija board out of a box. They discover that one of their former classmates was murdered. Emily speaks to them from beyond the grave in vowel-less English, that shorthand used in text messages like “l8r” or, in Emily’s case, “mrdr.”
Rob Schmidt was one of the up-and-coming directors invited to take part in the Masters of Horror/Fear Itself series largely off the success of one great horror film. Wrong Turn was a breakout hit with long legs among fans, spawning five sequels and an upcoming reboot this year. The key defining feature is something recurring in Schmidt’s work: you actually care about the characters who are being attacked by the villains. He doesn’t make disposable slasher films with bland characters; he makes ensemble-dependent films with moving performances that just happen to be horror, thriller, or tragedy. The Spirit Box is his second episode in the series, after Masters of Horror season 2’s Right to Die.
The Spirit Box is clever. There are some gimmicky elements that work in a horror film written and produced some time between 2007 and 2008. The almost-l33t speak messages reflect how teenagers and young people would communicate through text messages at the time. If you don’t remember, text messages used to be a pay-to-use service with significant data limits. Cutting out the vowels meant saving space for more important parts of the message without wasting more than one text. This was also before cellphones had full keyboards, so typing fewer letters meant faster text messaging than cycling through the two or three groups of letters on each number key for more complete spelling. Naturally, the planchette for Shelby and Becca’s spirit box is a flip phone with an arrow drawn on it.
Joseph Gangemi’s screenplay hits on some clear ideas and tonal shifts that set up layers of conflict in the narrative. First, the teenagers talk and act like teenagers. Sure, they’re investigating a student’s murder, but how they talk and interact with the world feels true to how I’ve seen high school students behave during my 14 years of teaching. By the time dialogue has to be used for some heavy exposition work in the third act, the realistic speech and behavior of Shelby and Becca make even the most fetch quest in a video game-styled dialogue feel natural in the moment.
Second, there’s a clear divide between the adults and the teenagers in the film. Shelby and Becca only interact with Shelby’s father (a sheriff) and their gym teacher. These men either judge them for not behaving like responsible adults or treat them like they are much more mature. It creates both a generation gap of understanding about the death of Emily and a constant threat to their safety as teenage girls. Not only have they discovered their classmate was murdered, they’ve realized that the likely culprit is one of the men trying to control their lives.
The Spirit Box is a moody paranormal thriller. There are just enough novel spins on some old tropes to make the story feel real and threatening. The cellphones are the focus to channel the supernatural energy through modern technology. Everything else is a clever and effective short thriller, a fully realized horror film in a 45 minute run time.
content warning: The Spirit Box deals with grooming and sexual predation against teenagers. These are major elements in the story. Please be safe if you choose to watch this. Also gore, violence against children.
Up next: Fear Itself: S1E12 “Echoes” from director Rupert Wainwright.