Luke Hinton takes a look at ‘#Blue_Whale, as part of FilmHounds’ ongoing Fantasia Festival coverage.
Warning: this review contains references to self-harm and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
After lingering in the urban legend zeitgeist for so long, it’s a surprise that nobody has made a film about the Blue Whale game until now. The challenge, primarily conducted over the Internet in European countries, involves young people undertaking increasingly brutal tasks over a period of weeks, leading to their ultimate suicide on the final day. It sounds similar to the 2014 Ron Perlman horror vehicle 13 Sins — but the key here is that the Blue Whale challenge actually happened. While there are no official deaths attributed to the game, its concerning link to real-life suicides means any film based on the topic needs to be handled sensitively. The stockily-titled #Blue_Whale isn’t that film. While there’s an interesting concept here, it leans too heavily on overdone horror tropes to really stand out from the crowd.
The film follows a teenager called Dana (Anna Potebnya), whose younger sister dies after walking in front of a train, as part of the Blue Whale challenge. Her life then becomes focused on bringing down those involved with tormenting mentally unstable teenagers, particularly the mask-donning Ada Morte — the ringleader of the operation. To do this, she has to go inside: portraying herself online as a willing participant, and seeing the levels of depravity its organisers are willing to dish out.
The film succeeds best when basing its narrative on what we know of the real-life game. There’s certainly a discussion to be had about the ethics of turning a real-life suicide game into a horror-thriller, but as Dana slowly surrounds herself in the twisted world of the game, the film undeniably becomes gripping. Director Anna Zaytseva builds a really unnerving, eerie atmosphere around the game; with occult imagery, bone-shredding audio clips of screams and cries, and the genuinely creepy imagery of Ada Morte’s ghoulish appearance. Dana’s decision to sneak into the game, trying to bring it down from the inside, allows for a deep look at what each task involves, and how it pushes its players further to the point of no return. This is where #Blue_Whale works best: examining the psychological element of a truly horrifying phenomenon, and exploring the human cost behind it.
Sadly, there’s a lack of directorial conviction here, and Zaytseva ends up leaning on pretty schlocky horror tropes to try and stick the landing. The last half-hour becomes a little too much like a slasher; with fist-fights, plot twists, and a race against time to save the day. It doesn’t feel tonally consistent with the opening phases — which felt scary because the narrative at hand was actually believable. The whole film takes cues from recent releases like Searching, by framing the events through Skype calls and Instagram live streams. As we literally witness Dana, from her home laptop, entering this world; the film really builds upon the fear regarding the Blue Whale challenge — but eventually devolves into typical slasher fare that undoes those aforementioned ideas.
The film would’ve been much more successful — and atmospheric — if it had zeroed in on the game, rather than the people behind it: what draws people to it, how it seduces the vulnerable, and the terror of its anonymous founders. Instead, #Blue_Whale reverts into familiar horror territory — which is a shame, because the thematic groundwork here could’ve easily morphed into the Blair Witch of the digital age.