Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Ghost In The Machine

Trigger Warning: I'd just like to make it known that any sarcasm around the suicide of character Laura Barns is a dig at the screenwriters and nothing more. Suicide is a serious and devastating act. If you or a friend have been having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.

Year: 2015
Director: Leo Gabriadze
Cast: Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Heather Sossaman
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I have seen the future and its name is Blumhouse. Their model for low budget flicks has proved successful many times in the past, but their horror offerings have been largely traditional up until now. However, their newest theatrical endeavor, Unfriended, pushes the envelope. 

Originally created as an MTV film, Unfriended is... well, it's the Skype movie. There's no way around that one. As far as I can trace it, this is the first computer-only movie ever produced, or at the very least the first released theatrically*. I'm always interested when Hollywood filmmaking incorporates modern technology and social media (mostly to an unbearably lame degree, like a grandma texting you in all caps), and this new film is perhaps the most focused and accurate reproduction of teen interactions with the Internet that I've ever seen, though it's married to a plot that even Adam Sandler would find hackneyed and overplayed.

*UPDATE: It turns out I got a tad carried away when making this assertion. This cinematic style has predecessors in the 2014 Elijah Wood thriller Open Windows, the garbagetastic 2012 V/H/S segment obnoxiously entitled "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," and the 2013 cult thriller The Den. Though, to be fair, Unfriended is the first film with a scope beyond the indie bubble, and it's the first one to invest in a fully immersive desktop experience.

I'm sorry, the number you have dialed could not be bothered to come up with a better story.

The occurrence of Unfriended, which I'm going to go ahead and call a "story" for clarity's sake, goes as such: A group of high school friends has a group Skype chat one night, on what is implied to be the anniversary of the suicide of their classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). After a video of Laura soiling herself at a party went viral on YouTube, she was bullied relentlessly online until she shot herself on a baseball field. It's a needlessly showy way to go, but it makes more sense than a good 98 percent of The Happening's self-mutilations, so we're going to let it slide.

You know what? I take it back. More movies need to have people feeding themselves to lions.

These friends are all quite douchey, but in richly unique, complexly variable ways like fine wines: There's Blaire (Shelly Hennig of Ouija), a supposed good girl with a wicked streak and our de facto protagonist through whose computer screen we view the ensuing events; Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Blaire's dull as dishwater boyfriend and a hopelessly dependent toerag; Adam (Will Peltz), the fledgling bro who looks like he was birthed from one of those beer bottle pyramids in a dingy frat house; Jess (Renee Olstead of The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who may or may not be Adam's girlfriend and is pretty useless otherwise; Ken (Jacob Wysocki of Pitch Perfect), who is good at computers and looks like Chunk from the Goonies if he grew up watching Entourage reruns; and Val (Courtney Halverson), who nobody really likes. And when these people don't like someone, you know something's up.

So, when these crazy kids begin their Skype hangout, they notice a mysterious blank profile is logged on as well. Despite all their efforts to get rid of it, it persists like acne on prom night. During this sequence there's a bit of dead space in the narrative as the kids log off and on again an aggravating number of times. But things start to perk up when the profile speaks out, revealing itself to be Laura Barns' account and challenging the friends to a deadly game of Never Have I Ever. 

As everybody's deepest, darkest secrets are revealed, Laura's spirit possesses their bodies one by one and forces them to kill themselves on camera. 

Teens these days, am I right?

By far the best element of Unfriended is the introduction of cyber horror as a legitimate concept with real potency. Going into the film, I was worried that the static screen and lack of camera movement would inhibit the film's value as cinema, but it absolutely does not. Like it or not, we're living in a plugged-in world and the massive shifts in how we view media play right in to the film's central conceit. 

The plot is kept moving through the interplay of many different web sites and apps, the biggest boon to the film being that they forked over the licensing money to actually use Facebook, iMessage, and whatnot. It's just not quite as intense when your lead is being threatened over Splashface Messenger. It only suffers a tiny bit from stilted TeenSpeak, and most everything a regular old movie might toss in the fray is diegetically provided with gusto.

You don't have a soundtrack? Wham, Blaire's Spotify playlist is at your service. You need to disguise a chintzy gore effect? Bam. The video's buffering, wouldn't you know? It all makes sense in the world of the narrative, and much of it is quite clever. Some of the soundscape is fictional, though it's not bothersome. And some of the Internet connection speeds are highly J. K. Rowling-level fanciful, but let's not look a gift horse in the mouth on that one.

But in spite of all its conceptual proficiency, Unfriended is just like every other middling teen fright flick we've seen before. It's not in the least bit spooky and bereft of bite beyond the surface-level cyberbullying narrative that it proves hesitant to explore. It exists solely to exist, much like the mass-produced found footage flicks of the past decade, a genre barely a stone's throw away from the cyberpunk path Unfriended is carving. It might seem shiny and new, but it has all the classic flaws of 2000's horror: unlikeable characters, a derivative plotline long past its sell-by date, and a concept that outstretches its budget.

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It's a real shame, is what it is. The plot never rises above its watered down post-Saw torture game concept (already achieved more adeptly - and far more timely - in films like Truth or Die, Would You Rather?, and even Nine Dead), and the scares are anemic at best. There's only so many times a Skype bubble appearing out of nowhere has the capacity to startle. And the characters are so ignobly irritating that it's more of a relief when they die than a shock.

But hey. What horror film isn't flawed? Some of Unfriended's flaws are quite damaging, but it has a strong original framework for its story, a couple wonderful gags that blossom from that conceit, and the acting is overall pretty decent. Considering that this film almost went straight to TV, the performance skill going into Unfriended is utterly remarkable. Taking on those enormously technical long takes while maintaining character and dialogue is a true challenge and they rise to it convincingly.

All in all, Unfriended is a fun time at the movies, but don't go in expecting to scream your eyebrows off. As a story it is basic to the utmost degree, but as an experience it is utterly unique.

Although I'd argue that the film is not improved by being blown up to theatrical screen proportions, this is perhaps the one film in existence that would work better on VOD. An immersive all-computer experience might just the shot in the arm the film needs to pack a punch. Pumping Unfriended into your computer screen must be like tapping directly into the Matrix, and I'd highly suggest giving that a whirl. 

TL;DR: Unfriended has a clever premise with follow-through, but its plot is generic and it lacks all but the most basic of scares.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'm always behind supporting original horror, so if you want to see it in the theaters, you have my blessing, but I really and truly believe that this film was meant to be viewed on VOD. Either way it's a decently fun time.
Word Count: 1428


  1. Open Windows did the all-computer screen movie trick last year. That one was a doozy. I'm aiming to check out Unfriended as soon as I can. As you know, I like haunted stuff and your judgment that it doesn't actively suck is as good as a recommendation. What I need is a local horror buddy. The GF doesn't see horror unless it's been feted as King Smart Horror Movie like It Follows, and even then only if strongly cajoled. It's a bummer.

    (Btw, sweet Gatsby reference.)

    1. Shooooot I totally forgot about Open Windows! See, that's why I qualified that remark. Well, maybe it's not quite so fresh as all that but I appreciate its direction.

      And if you want, I could write a facsimile review touting Unfriended as the king of intellectual suspense. That could be a fun thought exercise.

  2. Saw this with my girlfriend and yeah I agree with your rating. About a 6 from me too. I enjoyed the bravery of the computer screen concept and felt the very final shot in which the computer closed was great stuff. But unfortunately I felt like the whole experience was too morbid for me cause I had to watch a terrible person lie as her friends paid the price as a very vengeful person got the most drawn out revenge on them. I guess it's a cautionary tale about lying and assisted suicide, but I feel like anyone who had ever made a comment about "yeah laura kill yourself" and making fun of her online before she killed herself would have been arrested, as assissted suicide or cyber bullying is no joking matter. And it's also funny how Laura's demon conveniently cuts away the video feed before something gross happens and than cuts back right as a character dies a horrible death (i.e. fat kid dies by blender of course, girl dies by hair straightener). But I'm being a little nitpicky. Overall I'm happy I saw it.