Just in time for Halloween: Here are 11 free virtual simulations Hollywood has used to help sell its high-profile horror films.
Look, it’s going to happen. There will come a point where virtual and/or augmented reality will set the standard for a new form of immersion. While traditional movies and television will never go away entirely – people still read books, after all, despite centuries of competition by other media – what we think of as interactive is destined to change. For example, I work for a company that uses virtual simulations to educate; when we want to convey a particularly tricky concept to a student, we create a virtual environment that allows them a more hands-on experience with the subject matter. And where education goes, entertainment will follow.
The good news is that all of this will happen a little farther down the line. For now, Hollywood is simply content to dabble a little in the waters of virtual reality as part of unique and forward-looking marketing campaigns. The past year has been particularly fruitful for fans of virtual simulations; no fewer than 11 high-profile Hollywood horror films have been preceded by 360 videos of varying length, and while there’s a pretty wide discrepancy in quality between these films, the videos do at least show off the potential for the medium. And just in time for the couch at your Halloween party, here are the 11 horror simulations worth checking out on YouTube.
Following in the footsteps of the preceding films, the Paranormal Activity simulation favors name recognition over production value, introducing us to three college students in search of a seance and then bumping them off in fairly uninteresting ways. Like the franchise itself, Paranormal Activity‘s simulation is better at burning slowly than delivering impactful jump scares. You’ll be more interested in the way objects slowly move around the background than the short’s bland murders, which pretty much describes my theatrical experience with the original Paranormal Activity to a tee.
Plenty of smart and discerning horror fans have made the case to me that Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil is a franchise-saver, a film that somehow dodges every standard we’ve set about horror sequels and movies based on tabletop games. Then again, you wouldn’t know the film was anything special based on the simulation. At their worst, these shorts combine obvious jump scares with a lack of good spatial reasoning. How are you supposed to be frightened by a jump scare if the video gives you no context clues of where to look (thereby causing you to miss the whole thing)?
The Ring has always seemed like a pretty obvious candidate for a virtual simulation. How else to deliver the franchise’s signature visual of Samara climbing out of the television towards a terrified audience? Admittedly, there’s some pretty interesting visual elements in here – in one particularly memorable bit, pieces of the wall fall to the floor, leaving behind pockets of VHS static in their place – but the Rings virtual simulation gets dinged for being a little too short. This isn’t a Hollywood studio finding inspiration in a new format; this is just one of the more high-maintenance movie teasers you’ll ever see.
Sometimes a virtual simulation can actually have the unintended effect of disrupting the immersion created by the film. That is the case with Don’t Breathe. While the simulation serves up another iteration of the film’s memorable basement sequence – where Stephen Lang’s character kills the lights and chases the now-blinded teenagers through the basement – the immersive element actually undermines the tension from the original scene. The claustrophobia created in the movie is what sells the scene; in a simulation, there’s a necessary bubble of negative space that prevents the video from having the same effect.
From just a narrative standpoint, I feel like this should be ranked a lot higher. Not only do we accompany the main character on her birthday journey – waking up at her party, getting killed, and waking up at her party again – we are also invited to play the role of detective, rewatching the simulation until we’re able to identify the woman’s murderer. It’s a neat idea, but in execution, the Happy Death Day simulation just comes across as a little too busy. If I wanted to watch a bunch of college students yell at each other in videos, I’d just go fire up Snapchat again. Minus-5 points because I’m being a cranky old man.
It’s here that we begin to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. Warner Bros. has invested a lot of time and energy into their simulations, and the results speak for themselves; even this particular Conjuring 2 video is a fair amount of fun to watch, even if it simply rehashes some of the imagery and the sound design of the movie itself. Perhaps more than anything else, though, simulations like The Conjuring 2 (Enfield) demonstrate the importance of quality sound design. Horror films have always been a testament to the power of hearing over seeing, and 360 simulations are no different.
5. The Forest
Another glorified teaser for a feature film, but at least The Forestknows its job isn’t to just rehash visuals from the movie itself. The Forest delivers a tight little horror story with everyone’s favorite childhood fear: you’re camping, there’s something outside your tent, and it sounds like it might want to get in. The tent also provides an element of claustrophobia too often missing in many of these simulations, a direct result of that bubble of empty space occupied by the 360 camera in shoots. Nicely done all around.
4. Death Note
If you listened to my recent podcast episode on Fantastic Fest with Neil Miller, then you’ll remember us both talking about how strange it is to hear the Netflix bumper in a movie theater. It’s no less strange when you hear it coming through the headset on a 360 headset. Perhaps more than any of the other titles on this list, Death Note emphasizes exposition over interactivity, but that actually makes it a more immersive experience. Being prompted to look at certain parts of your screen – and avoiding having 360 degrees of action at any given moment – makes the whole thing a little easier to enjoy.
3. It (Float)
Like some of the other titles on this list, It does little more than rehash plot points from the movie itself, but it’s a testament to the world Andy Muschietti and his crew have created that we never get bored of revisiting the tunnels below Derry. The ending is particularly satisfying, with Pennywise’s balloons allowing us to experience the true meaning of the word “float.” Oh, and more opportunities to enjoy Bill Skarsgard’s performance? Yes, please. It will be a must-watch for most fans of this year’s breakout horror film.
Annabelle: Creation may not be the most inspired demonic possession movie you’ll ever see, but what it does know how to do is build atmosphere. That’s part of the fun of the Annabelle: Creationvirtual simulation. Here we get to experience Bee’s bedroom in all its creepy glory; from bouncing between a dollhouse and its real-life counterparts, to spending some time in Annabelle’s closet prison, we get to experience first-hand some of the best moments of the film in an environment designed to keep the narrative (and our eyes) moving along at just the right pace. Warner Bros. makes pretty good horror movies; it makes even better simulations.
The first simulation from The Conjuring 2 was pretty good, but this one? This one effortlessly blends together the virtual environment with honest-to-goodness plot points from the film. We are guided through the haunted house by Vera Farmiga’s medium; much like in the movie, there are moments where her powers works against her, and the simulation knows how to repeat sequences in a darkly skewed version of what we’ve already seen to maximize this effect. Call it the Silent Hill of <5 minute Hollywood simulations, if you will. Or just call it one of the best 360 experiences you’ll be able to find on a major branded YouTube channel. Either one will do.