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Movie Review: Unfriended

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Review by Brandon Wolfe

The runaway success of Paranormal Activity was the point where the found-footage format crossed over into the mainstream (The Blair Witch Project was obviously the subgenre’s first hit, but it spent the decade following its release as a one-off curio rather than a trendsetter), spearheading the opportunity for filmmakers to crank out cost-effective horror films that didn’t require slick production values or expensive equipment. They could be produced with recording devices you could get at Best Buy and were expected, even encouraged, to look like they were shot by shaky-handed amateurs. Given its low-overhead accessibility, the subgenre has become so ubiquitous that filmmakers are now having to figure out ways to make the achingly familiar seem new again. So instead of horror films shot on consumer-based cameras, how about one shot entirely on Skype? That’s something new, yes?

Unfriended sure wants you to think it is. The film takes place entirely within the confines of a teenager’s laptop, in real-time, as she flirts with her boyfriend, Skypes with her friends and checks her email and Facebook page. Eventually, as she and her group of friends natter on while Skyping, they notice a mysterious party crasher is among them, designated only by a photoless default icon. The group is unable to delete the mystery guest from their ranks, and the unidentified party begins reaching out to them across several platforms, claiming to be a fellow classmate, Laura Barns, who took her own life exactly a year ago (depicted in the opening scene, via YouTube video) after a mortifying video of her was posted online for the world to see. This ghost in the machine cannot be exorcised despite everyone’s best efforts and seems to have revenge on the brain, seeking to destroy the bonds between these friends before destroying their bodies as well.

Unfriended walks the fine line between innovative and tedious, with its feet landing on the tedious side most of the time. The manner in which the film locks us into the confines of a single laptop screen and then uses all manner of cross-platform pop-up boxes and online venues to unpack its story is fairly ingenious. The laptop’s owner, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), toggles from Skype to iMessage to Gmail to Google to Facebook to Spotify (with all websites being allowed to play themselves rather than forcing the filmmakers to manufacture fictional counterparts for them), which keeps the film visually busy, in spite of our ceaseless incarceration within a computer screen. The film really commits to its conceit, never cheating by straying from the cyber world, and because the intruder threatens to kill any member of the group who logs off, the film circumvents the usual found-footage quandary of “Why don’t they just drop the camera and run?” And, perhaps more than any other film in memory, Unfriended really captures our present moment in time with regard to the proliferation of electronics-based communication. The film is constructed entirely out of online tools and channels that have become commonplace in our day-to-day lives, providing an immediate, immersive familiarity. If anyone in the future should ever require a visual record of what it was like to be a technological consumer in 2015, this film will stand as a perfectly accurate historical document.

But that’s where the tedious part takes over. Unfriended is literally an opportunity to watch someone use the Internet. Before the supernatural shenanigans begin occurring, we are forced to watch Blaire have lengthy, thoroughly banal text sessions with her boyfriend, replete with us having to wait for his typed replies to pop onscreen. We are also treated to watching Blaire conduct Google searches, check her email and look at Facebook, our only respite being whenever the disembodied heads of the group members assemble onscreen in Skype boxes. Crafting an entire horror movie out of first-person Internet usage frequently results in monotony so aggressive that it overrides whatever inherent innovation is being achieved. The film attempts to build ticking-clock tension from such trivial things as a virus scan, the emptying of an overly full Recycle Bin and the drawn-out downloading of a file (that last one, by the way, plays out over the longest 15 seconds in film history). Unfriended doesn’t seem to realize that adding a ghost into the mix doesn’t do enough to offset how mind-numbing the simple act of watching somebody use the Internet can be.

It doesn’t help that the batch of teens we’re saddled with aren’t exactly winners. They are vapid, shrill and obnoxious, and they frequently engage in punishing shouting matches, rendering the film as uninteresting to listen to as it is to look at. The intruder’s divide-and-conquer strategy of sowing seeds of dissension among the group does lead to one decent extended sequence, when the group is forced under threat of death to play a bout of “Never Have I Ever” where they must reveal their darkest instances of betrayal to one another, but even that ends up as an avenue for more unpleasant yelling. That the group comes across as authentic teenagers perhaps gives Unfriended more of the verisimilitude that it clearly craves, but it doesn’t help any of it go down any smoother.

The biggest blunder of Unfriended is that it’s so locked into conveying its gimmick that it doesn’t expend much effort toward being an effective horror film. A slasher who spends a film tormenting victims with textbox taunts or by posting scandalous pictures or videos isn’t one in danger of chilling any audience’s bones, and when the bodies start hitting the floor, it comes in the form of unintentionally hilarious self-application of household appliances. And the film’s final jolt is a parting shot so achingly typical that it neglects to even function as an effective jump-scare. There is the sense that this might have made a fine 15-minute segment in, say, a V/H/S film, but stretched out to 83 minutes, it becomes something of an endurance test. There are moments when the film seems to be attempting to comment on such real-world concerns as cyber-bullying or “slut-shaming,” but it ultimately only pays them lip service. No, Unfriended’s only true aim is to replicate the experience of watching an annoying teenager surf the Web and babble with her dumb friends in exhaustively accurate detail. This isn’t a horror film, it’s the world’s most mundane Saw trap.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


Thomas Watson said…
Unfriended is basically Friday the 13th on a laptop, but the gimmick works like gangbusters.

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