Friday, October 21, 2022

‘My Little Eye’ – 2002’s Nihilistic Commentary on Reality Entertainment [Horrors Elsewhere]

The 1980s cultivated a sense of paranoia — all sides of the media played into the idea of being spied on. Then something happened in the following decades where people suddenly wanted to be watched, especially on a large scale. From reality television to vlogs to online influencers, exhibitionism and voyeurism have taken on new forms and meanings. In response to the changing times, the horror genre found a way to both comment on and make itself a part of the trend. Commercial attempts like Halloween: Resurrection touched on the concept’s dark side, but the underbelly of this subgenre is where criticism is at its most scathing. And no other horror movie lambastes the reality boom quite like My Little Eye.

While people today are by and large less inhibited when it comes to broadcasting their lives online, the five characters in Marc Evans’ 2002 movie were initially reluctant to join a reality webcast. The $1-million cash prize, however, changed their minds. Taking a page out of The Real World, My Little Eye shadows five strangers cloistered away in a remote house for six months. So long as no one leaves during that time, the money is theirs. It’s only in the last week when the contestants realize there’s something amiss about the show they signed up for and the mysterious producers behind the surveillance cameras.

Shot primarily in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the British production feels like a long ways away from civilization. The neglected state of the house and the numerous animal heads on the wall give off a subtle impression of death. In any other horror movie, the characters would only enter a place like this as a last resort; here they willingly stay for half a year. The isolated setting is crucial to the tense and uncomfortable mood of My Little Eye. Right from the beginning the audience feels trapped with the characters, who are suffering from cabin fever.

My Little Eye

The cast of relatively unknown actors helps pull off a story of this kind, but their performances are more scripted than natural. According to the director, improvisation and spontaneity were hard to come by on set. Yet what ultimately gives this some verisimilitude are the production values — or really the lack thereof. This $3-million budgeted movie achieved its artificial low-tech aesthetic by using half a dozen digital cameras to record everything. The unadorned appearance pushes for authenticity as well as improves the efficacy of the more shocking moments. Although My Little Eye isn’t necessarily a found-footage movie, the goal here is the same. The invasive and voyeuristic camerawork is intended to make audiences think everything is real until told otherwise.

It’s standard for reality shows to create “drama” by introducing unexpected elements. And after months of letting the cast live somewhat comfortably, the webcast’s producers unleash a slow but steady trickle of unsettling events to shake things up. An ominous crow finds its way into the house, a cast member’s grandfather supposedly died while he was away, and someone wakes up next to a bloody hammer on her pillow. While the whole experience is meant to be an exercise in realism, the characters chalk these events up to the producers toying with them for clicks and views. Because as much as anyone likes the idea of reality entertainment, there is such a thing as being too real.

The producers’ meddling only worsens as the six-month period comes to a close. An unexpected visit from a supposedly random passerby, played by Bradley Cooper, is a flagrant metaphor for how these shows use people for their own pleasure and benefit. And the twisting of the truth to cause more friction leads to the webcast’s first but not last fatality. The reality shows of today are tame when compared to their ancestors; producers have had to learn from both their own and others’ mistakes. When this movie was first released, though, reality TV was still in the process of finding a balance between entertainment and exploitation. Meanwhile, David Hilton and James Watkins’ story darkly imagines the worst level these reality shows could reach if they were left unchecked.

My Little Eye

The widely covered and sensationalized O. J. Simpson murder trial is thought to be the beginning of modern reality TV, among other things now considered permanent fixtures in today’s pop culture. My Little Eye alludes to the same morbid fascination with both instant celebrities and death as a spectator sport, though the execution is absolutely more extreme and aggressive to avoid any ambiguity. It’s that same harsh characteristic that influenced the distributor, Universal, to pass on a theatrical release in the United States. Of course their decision came after viewing a rough cut in the days following 9/11. Sadistic horror movies wouldn’t become common to see in theaters until a few years later.

My Little Eye is a vicious send-up of a once-burgeoning and now-ubiquitous mode of entertainment. Once it’s over the hurdle of intentional drudgery to imitate the slow parts of most reality TV, Marc Evans’ movie explodes into a denouement rife with nihilism and violence. Horror has since made such displays of brutality and bleakness into a routine or expectation, but even in light of that fact, there is still something to be said about how My Little Eye punishes people’s ambition and gullibility.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

My Little Eye

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