Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The sleeper horror hit of 2020 might be a “cursed” film streaming on Amazon

The sleeper horror hit of 2020 might be a “cursed” film streaming on Amazon

If you’re a horror fan who’s been perusing Amazon Prime during this surreal, frightening self-quarantine of ours, there’s a decent chance you already have, or soon will, come across a movie called Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. And even if you aren’t a genre fan, there’s still a good chance you’ve had the film suggested to you on the streaming platform—the low-budget indie was Prime’s top-trending title last month. This would make at least some sense if Antrum were in any way tied to Amazon Studios, and not distributed by Uncork’d Entertainment, which specializes in cheap knockoffs like Annabelle: The Return Charlotte: The Return, Pet Sematary Pet Graveyard, and Game Of Thrones Dragon Kingdom.

If nothing else, TikTok is certainly aware of Antrum, where impressionable teens have been recently debating the movie’s veracity using hashtags like #AntrumChallenge, daring each other to watch the supposedly cursed film. If Antrum’s momentum continues, it could easily become one of the year’s most buzzed-about and divisive horror movies—not bad for a film that premiered back in 2018 and was released, very quietly, last fall.

So what is Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made? (Other than the deadliest film ever made, obviously.) Shot on a budget of just $60,000 (coincidentally the same cost as its most obvious influence, The Blair Witch Project), the movie presents itself as a long-lost 1970s arthouse horror flick about two siblings digging a hole to hell. But screenwriter David Amito, who co-directed with Michael Laicini, also augments this supposedly recovered cult curiosity with bookending narration and a “legal notice” that recount the numerous suspicious deaths and injuries they claim have befallen anyone who’s watched the entire film. Antrum also overlays its footage with various spooky occult symbols and audio distortions, which—as the aforementioned narration informs us—may or may not be the work of whoever also happened to splice in quick glimpses of a gruesome snuff film. Keeping up so far?

Amito and Laicini’s movie began screening in 2018 at genre-leaning film festivals like the Salem Horror Fest and Brooklyn Horror Film Festival to positive responses, slowly garnering the attention of reality-bending horror icons like Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez, as well as Ruggero Deodato, maker of the notorious proto-found footage shocker Cannibal Holocaust. “This was something of an industry-traded movie… It’s strange in that the only way to talk about it is to find someone who’s seen it and go talk to them. There aren’t a lot of things like that that exist anymore,” Antrum’s producer, Eric Thirteen, recounted to Forbes in a recent profile.

Slow-burn hype is an almost entirely foreign concept today, when even indie “prestige horror” films like Hereditary, The Witch, and It Follows can gain worldwide distribution almost overnight. Gradual whispers of something sinister getting discovered on the festival circuit was far more common in pop culture’s pre-internet landscape. Even in the nascent era of widespread online access, the salacious blurring of fact and fiction almost always took time to garner interest.

Until the credits roll, Antrum blurs those lines better than almost any other film in the found-footage subgenre, building on past staples like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. Most other filmmakers probably would have either opted to make a mockumentary about a cursed film or instead hyped their movie’s supposed sinister powers via some clever publicity campaign. Antrum instead combines the two almost flawlessly—not only do Amito and Laicini warn you of what they’ve “found”; they offer it up to watch, if you dare.

The interviews with film critics and experts are all believable, and the movie-within-the-movie is a near pitch-perfect re-creation of 1970s arthouse satanic horror flicks, complete with a theme melody verging on iconic. Even setting aside the bells and whistles, Antrum is an interesting exploration of the power of grief, imagination, and good old-fashioned devil worship. The “subliminal” imagery is effectively unnerving, and the few brief glimpses of the supposed snuff film are all it takes to understand why so many unsuspecting TikTok teens have obsessed over whether the film is real. It’s a multifaceted piece of horror, the sum of its parts adding up to one of the more creative, haunting genre releases in recent memory.

Illustration for article titled The sleeper horror hit of 2020 might be a “cursed” film streaming on Amazon
Photo: Screenshot

All that said, Antrum is already incredibly divisive, possibly even more so than the found-footage horror successes it recalls. Despite its title, the film isn’t particularly deadly. For many viewers, Antrum will not be frightening—especially not during the brief sequence involving a cartoonish stop-motion squirrel puppet. It becomes quickly apparent as the credits roll that the filmmakers didn’t go to any particular lengths to disguise the fact that Antrum is, unsurprisingly, complete fiction. Amito is listed as the screenwriter during the credits, and the entire cast has profiles on IMDb. The squirrel puppeteer’s name is Kate McCafferty. It’s as though the directors (understandably) assumed it would be near impossible to forge an urban legend in this digital age.

From the low body count to the false advertising, Antrum doesn’t seem like a surefire recipe for horror success. For any one person driven to leave their bedside lights on upon its conclusion, there will be at least one to leave a review akin to, “Should’ve watched kermit’s swamp years and then blow my brains out instead of watching this.” But people are finding Antrum. Why? Fear may be subjective, but it’s also contagious, its growth exponential. Whether the film is effective or not is something viewers want to discover for themselves; if enough people debate a horror movie’s supposed terrors, it can become a word-of-mouth sensation, regardless if the film pays off on that hype or not.

A large part of Antrum’s recent, delayed popularity is almost certainly tied to the simple fact that millions are suddenly facing an excess of free time on our hands. With streaming subscribers burning through their watchlists, there’s undoubtedly been an increase in searches for new, novel distractions from the real-life horror movie currently transpiring outside our homes. If Antrum received a normal theatrical release instead of quietly finding its way to Amazon Prime last November, audiences would likely have seen through the schtick very quickly and moved on. Instead, it’s that lack of publicity which ironically now benefits Antrum the most, and gives it that feel of something “lost” or difficult to track down. All it took was one or two well-timed, well-hashtagged posts to catch on, and the inevitable Online Discourse went from there. Self-quarantining is the best way we can contain something like a real-world pandemic, but it creates a digital hot zone for all the Tiger Kings, The Last Dances, and Antrums out there.

Cursed objects in horror are simply supernatural contagions. Think of Ringu and the 2002 American remake’s VHS tape, or of a haunted doll—horror’s patient zeroes, designed to infect as many unsuspecting souls as possible. Antrum may not really be cursed, but after laying dormant for some time, it’s proving itself potent in the current pop culture environment, a beneficiary of relevant world events, internet discourse, and pure luck. What’s that old adage about a curse becoming a blessing?

Andrew Paul is a contributing writer with work recently featured by NBC Think, GQ, Slate, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He writes the newsletter, (((Echo Chamber))).

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