Blame Adam. It was my lad who wanted to see Unfriended, though to be fair to him there was precious little by way of movies with class or appeal to be found at the local multiplex, a complaint I have made in a previous blog. He sure blames himself for asking to be taken to this movie. This is his comment:
“It is literally the worst thing ever made ever. I would rather resit all my exams, including mocks, back to back.”
It didn’t look that appalling, even when the choice isn’t vast. Maybe not original, but not that terrible, even if it looked instantly to me like another me-too formulaic horror movie bringing together aspects of Blair Witch Hunt (even a character called Blaire, which in turn nods towards Linda Blair of Exorcist fame), The Ring and a variety of other pictures.
But perhaps I’m being a trifle uncharitable. After all, Unfriended is a horror movie for the social media age, so I should remember my plans to write a novel about a fictional social media network. Both uses might be described as opportunistic, though social networking and video chat has unquestionably become a legend in its own lunchtime, definitely here to stay and without doubt a massive influence on our lives.
Teens being the cannon-fodder of horror movies everywhere, and, coincidentally, the primary users of social networking, it’s hardly surprising that they dominate this movie. Perhaps more to the point, the movie also hints at the very real issue of online abuse and the result that teenagers have taken their own lives as a direct result – though here that is just the starting point for a narrative that implies a fairly common theme of revenge-beyond-the-grave, substituting for the scary house or woodlands a virtual Internet reality – though even that has been explored on film (see here for examples of the genre, and here for movies in which technology provides the source of horror.)
It’s not too long since the use of computer technology on screen was patently absurd and nothing like reality, though all too often the real screens were dull and lifeless too. Thankfully both improved, as did techniques for displaying, for example, text messages and emails as superimposed windows, but the advent of windowed screens and video technology lends itself far better to the big screen.
In this case the modus operandi is that of a screencast of the laptop from one such teenage high school student named Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig.) Fact is that in practice for much of Unfriended it looks way too much like our daily lives in front of our many devices, which you might consider a good argument for going to the cinema for escapist nonsense rather than more of the same. It does however lend a claustrophobic feel, much in the same way that Locke achieved by virtue of one man being in a car but engaged in dramatic telephone conversations.
The proposition, brought to in a cinema-verité style beloved of “found footage” movies, is this: it is a year after Blaire’s friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide following an abusive YouTube video. The ghost in the machine is apparently Laura, possessed of the power to compel the friends (excitable women and darkish guys, stereotypes to the last) whose behaviour brought about her demise to account, and to commit suicide themselves. Leave out the supernatural element such pranks appear all the rage in California, judging by this evidence – and no doubt real life mirrors art.
To succeed, this attempt has to hit the high spots not only in production design but also plot and acting. Judge by some of the critic comments:
Dread Central praised the film overall, but stated that they felt that the movie’s one major flaw was “the fashion in which we are trafficked to each scare- through multi-screen clicking, copying, pasting and re-sizing, basically all-around multi-tasking. It can be trying to sit through and I liken it to sitting over someone’s shoulder watching them web-surf… endlessly.” It was named Most Innovative Film at the Fantasia Film Festival and received a Special Mention for Feature Film.
British film critic Mark Kermode gave the film a positive review, calling it a film which understands Skyping culture and cyber-bullying. He said, “Many people who’ve seen the trailer say, ‘You’re being stalked through the internet. Just log off.’ The point is they can’t because they’re addicted.” While on one hand admitting it was a “shrieky, teen-terrorized, slasher movie,” on the other hand he said it was a film about how cyber-bullying only works if you cooperate with it.
Perhaps the medium is designed to provide greater credence to what might otherwise just be the same old same old hoary “shrieky, teen-terrorized, slasher movie” hokum we know so well. In the way it is devised, the technique is clever and naturalistic, but forget the whizzy computer effects; the plot and dramatic content is both deeply conventional and highly predictable – even down to the sudden video flashes of torture and death so common among movies of the ilk. Mostly it’s bumps and bangs, screaming faces, a gunshot and the bizarre appearance of a food blender, but nothing you’ve not seen and/or heard before.
To be fair to the actors, they probably had to act themselves for the most part (teenager acting like jerks, as teenagers are wont to do in movies), but when “Laura” launches into a fatal game of “Never have I ever…” things become screechy very rapidly – and totally unlike real life. It always seems to me that horror films are much more effective when they are not shouty and melodramatic, something masters like Polanski, Lynch and Kubrick understood only too well.
So it didn’t take long for us to lose interest, though unlike other members of the audience who did walk out, we stuck it for the whole 83 minutes. Director Levan Gabriadze simply fails to get under the skin of his audience, to the extent that the movie never once made me jump, let alone feel remotely shocked or surprised.
As horror films go it lacked all suspense and was, frankly, dull. Adam went further – to him, as a teenager, the hackneyed send-up of teenage life was embarrassing, such that he could barely watch the screen. Considering he is probably the core audience for Gabriadze, that is a pretty sad condemnation, even allowing for the things he does right. Sure, addressing cyber-bullying is a worthy and essential ambition, but if so it needs a more effective vehicle and but more effective ways to grip the audience. Thumbs down from me to what is ultimately derivative and forgettable nonsense.