Red Rose, the BBC teen horror-drama that launched on Netflix this week, starts with the story of Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth), a teenager from Northern England who wears many hats: student, leader of her group of friends (self-dubbed the Dickheads), and older sister (and sometimes parent) to her younger twin sisters. On top of all her responsibilities, Rochelle is still grieving the loss of her mother, who died two years ago by suicide. Struggling under the weight of her chaotic and underprivileged reality, Rochelle becomes an easy target for a cyber-phishing attempt from a homicidal app called Red Rose.
But a lot happens in between, indicating a refreshing development in the screenlife microgenre, which centers on narratives told almost exclusively via computer and phone screens. Here’s how the story usually goes: teen downloads evil app, logs onto evil website, or clicks an evil link; nefarious people use the device’s camera and microphone as a method of surveillance; cyberstalkers use said surveillance to harm the teen.
At the time of writing this, the show sports one of the most discordant scores on Rotten Tomatoes that I’ve ever seen: Critics favor the show at 100 percent, while audience members relegated it to just 27 percent. The critics are right: those aforementioned tropes do occur in Red Rose, but the show ups the ante tenfold, taking cyberbullying and harassment to an entirely new, revivifying level. Red Rose finally gives us a digital horror series that doesn’t see the threat of today’s chronically online society as ending with mere surveillance—rather, it flexes the fullest extent of malware’s power: social engineering.
The app not only accesses your camera or microphone, but it also commandeers your text messages and social media accounts, texts your contacts or deletes your unread messages without your knowledge, and posts things without your consent. This is all while it records your face and surroundings through the phone’s cameras for blackmail fodder. The blackmail is foisted upon the teens often to avoid a public humiliation that’s already unavoidable due to their social media being hacked by malware that knows their biggest insecurities and secrets. Under social duress, the Dickheads are forced to be recorded for further extortion, creating an endless loop of abuse that only ends when they’re shut off from society, excommunicated from their inner circle of friends, and distrusted by their family.
The importance of highlighting the dangers of social engineering is that it imparts a sense of caution about technology without coming off like it’s chiding Gen Z for being too online. The idea of the Red Rose app is that it harbors many of the evil AI qualities of HAL 9000, is as widespread as the app in Nerve, and as powerful as the federal intelligence AI in Eagle Eye. Red Rose displays its prowess by accessing technology outside of the characters’ phones, such as TVs and Bluetooth speakers, too. The message here is clear: No one is safe. If Red Rose is on your phone, it’s watching you.
In a later scene, the remaining Dickheads, having had a few too many close brushes with death from listening to the app, attempt to remain offline. But, during a grocery run, they become wary of the shop’s security cameras, then afraid of strangers’ phones at the bus stop on the way home. They try to take a taxi instead, but the driver is using GPS on their phone, which a character notices is hacked to re-route them to a different location. They get out and walk, lugging their groceries through the woods. As Red Rose makes clear, there is no escape: so long as there’s a reliance on technology, it can be manipulated for evil.
Still, the most frightening function Red Rose performs is reminding us that we’re too far gone to stop an attack like this. The only defense we have is to go offline, but we can’t—it’s too much of a sacrifice to sever such a major connection to the outside world. All we have, then, is a blind trust in, and deep understanding of, the people around us. Well, that and a shaky hope that our loved ones would have to be hacked to destroy us online. I’m not so sure I’m ready to trust in that, though. Are you?