Four twenty-something co-workers, bored with their day jobs and sick of being locked up in isolation, play a silly online game and unwittingly prove the truth of an urban legend. However, whilst they may not be able to get out, that doesn’t mean that something can’t get in… In The Shadow It Waits is performed live, and none of the cast have ever met.
It’s the noise “it” makes that’s the most frightening. A cross between a frightened woman’s mewling and someone gently running their nails down a blackboard, it’s heart-rending, spine-tingling and jarring all at once.
Alongside the noise is an agile figure that creeps and slithers, jumps and scuttles around the apartments of a group of young Australians who’ve been locked down for over a year.
We don’t know why they’re shut inside – presumably a COVID-like pandemic though they’re under strict curfew as well – but it’s clear that for many of them their isolation is starting to tear holes in their own reality, and even those coping with the strain are pining: “You smell like the outside world” says Hanna to her flatmate Steve wistfully.
Pat (Robert Pham) is team leader for a group of newish sales people; in their Zoom update he ploughs on smilingly through the upbeat yet slightly intimidating patter he’s been given, as Meg (Naomi Plucke) explains how she’s increased her success rate by being more of a friend to those she’s selling to. It’s more fakery in a story about how much we need others’ approval, and struggle on our own when that is removed. (And if the victims in a horror film are being punished for their transgressions, Meg’s are being overly earnest and desperate to please.)
Jules (Vessela Karadjova) is a glamorous social media influencer while working in sales to actually pay her bills. Hanna (Nalani Wakita) lives with Steve (SC Wilson), who runs online yoga classes which they pitch as a bright light in the darkness.
Also appearing is Jace (Eddie Orton), Hanna’s boyfriend; he’s madly jealous of Steve, who lightens the oppressive and furtive atmosphere of Beets’ film with some impressive double entendres as he ropes Hanna into yoga demonstrations, watched over Zoom by an increasingly apoplectic Jace. (The comedy stress release valve comes at exactly the right time, counteracting the repetitive nature of the horrors they face in their apartments.)
Their problems begin when Meg, browsing online, comes across an online game about a sinister character called Billy. It turns out that everyone who plays it is also inviting Billy into their home, and Billy is here to slay not to play.
In The Shadow It Waits homes in with pinpoint accuracy on the clash between the isolation and loneliness of Lockdown and our modern need for validation. We let the wrong people in, giving up control of our sense of self to others. Jules takes endless selfies to post online, checking her follower responses while attempting to mimic that aspirational way of living in her lockdown life; Hanna hears something in her closet and has to push through layers of clothes to find out what is behind, as if trying to get to the real her.
There’s also the terror of one’s home being invaded when you can’t escape. Their Zoom calls are permanently on and they dip in and out for work or support. It’s both a lifeline and an intruder, and probably recognisable to many people now working from home and forced into constant video calls, their one sanctuary now on display to everyone else.
The cast are particularly effective at showing the genuine bonds that flourish even though most of the characters have never met. Their chitchat and banter sounds entirely authentic. Wakita and Pham are especially impressive. Pat has a gradual breakdown, desperate to talk to his mum while he’s stalked around his tiny apartment – in his case Billy, if it is he, seems to be taunting him, drawing out his torment as long as possible.
The show feels seamless. I quickly forgot it was actually being performed as I watched it (in Australia at 6am, to accommodate us Brits at 9pm BST. Well you can’t watch supernatural home invader horror on a sunny July school holiday morning, can you).
Beets also shows how effective a “long short film” can be. In The Shadow It Waits has a runtime of 45 minutes, enough for character development, nervous laughs and tension-building, but not so long we’re looking at our watches as a budget fails to stretch as far as a filmmaker’s imagination.
The story is simple, and not novel, and at times the creature haunting them looks a bit am-dram; though that’s down to budget and practicalities. I’m not sure you could do a narratively complex, special effects-heavy, live horror story on an indie budget.
This is an atmospheric and nervy production. There’s a palpable sense of growing hysteria, as everyone tries to deal with the pent-up emotions caused by being shut away for so long.
The technical side is spot on and there are some effective jump scares. (When you’re on a video call there’s a lot that can go on behind you, and Beets ensures there are always plenty of half-open doors, closets left ajar and TVs on the background.)
In The Shadow It Waits shows clearly that there’s also no substitute – however much we love our online worlds – for human touch (but not an inhuman one).
Upcoming dates and how to watch:
Upcoming UK performance dates: 1 and 8 August
Time: 9pm BST
Running time: 45 minutes (plus a 15 minute Q&A after the show)
Tickets: £10 from https://electricdreamsfestival.com/intheshadowitwaits/
Watch the teaser trailer: