The Blair Witch Project, Saw and Paranormal Activity; these films and their subsequent sequels are of all varying quality (depending heavily on what you want out of your horror experience), but the one area that made them stand out more than anything are their novelties. By definition, all those films are novel in how they were (at the time) new, original and/or unusual, but each would eventually wear out their welcome (some faster than others) and become relegated to simple footnotes of cinematic history as opposed to films that grow in popularity over time. Now you can add Unfriended to that list, a film that also relies so heavily on its gimmick that once it wears out its welcome there isn’t anything left to hold on to. Read the full review after the break.
The first (and arguably most important) thing you should know about Unfriended before seeing it is to understand what it is. Much like the Paranormal Activity films (the closest comparison there is), the film isn’t so much a movie as it is an experiment of sorts. Eschewing the usual filmmaking tropes such as camera angles, supporting actors, sets, locations or any other detail that is used to bring a story to life, Unfriended is a single camera, single perspective ordeal. However, instead of seeing everything through the lens of a stationary camera in a room in hopes of seeing something move, we are watching all the action through someones desktop screen.
That’s right, the very thing you are most likely reading this review on is the audience’s conduit for the entire film. Imagine if you will, your entire desktop image blown up and put on a gigantic theater screen and then imagine having hundreds of people sitting down with their buckets of popcorn, soda drinks and candy to watch what you do on your computer for the next 90 minutes or less. Sound kind of strange and maybe just a tad bit on the boring side? Well, that is very close to the experience of watching Unfriended, but to be fair there is more going on here than just watching another person scanning the internet (although that happens more frequently than you might expect).
Unfriended, for all its gimmicky nonsense, is a horror film at heart and what that means is that people, most likely teenagers who look more like they are in their late 20’s than their late teens, will get killed over the course of the film as their true selves are slowly revealed to one another. How is this achieved if the entire movie takes place on a desktop screen you ask? Well, once again just like Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project, we get an extremely convoluted scenario where a group of friends apparently group video chat over Skype each night and through that conduit we have a multi-screen image of each (seven in total) kid sitting at their home computers chatting about the things that normal every day teenagers chat about…drugs, sex…drugs…oh, and a dead girl.
While watching a group of teenagers talk over each other for over an hour would try the patience of even the most even tempered adult, there are thankfully other forces at work to distract us. You see, all these friends are Skyping each other on the one year anniversary of fellow student and friend Laura Barns’ death, or more to the point, her suicide. Her suicide was the result of severe cyber-bullying in the shape of a rather unglamorous video of her getting drunk and frisky at a party placed Youtube that none too subtley instructed her to kill herself. While each of the friends on Skype seem to be unrelated to those events, it is revealed over the course of the film that some of them may have some hidden connections to Laura.
This isn’t really a film of secrets, even though it may present itself that way at first. We know EVERYTHING there is to know within the first thirty or so minutes. We know that these kids knew Laura in some way and that this mysterious Skyper who is crashing their group chat is likely the spirit of Laura and that she has come back to unleash some rather unpleasant karma on everyone. Most of all though, we know each of these kids is gonna die and they likely are not going to be neat deaths. But this isn’t the first horror film to rely on clichés of the genre and provide stock characters ripe for the killing, so why does this gimmick fail where its peers prevailed?
It’s simple really, the gimmick just doesn’t work for the full length feature film format. It’s neat at first watching someone click away on their desktop, opening files, receiving ominous messages and eventually having their lives threatened all while sitting at the comfort of their own computer screen, a place the entire audience knows only too well. But there is something artificial to the entire product that leaves a stale taste. Aside from the film feeling like a “how to” guide for Mac users, there is a strange disconnect between the audience and the characters, even more so than in previous films in the found footage genre.
It’s already bad enough that they are all nothing but stereotypes (the cute brunette who is still a virgin but really sluts it up, the handsome boyfriend who’s loyalty is questionable, the geeky fat kid computer whiz, the loud and obnoxious jock guy, the blonde and the bitch), but watching them communicate through Skype feels exceedingly forced to the point of pulling you out of the entire film. Just like how found footage films need to find a reason to explain why someone would willingly hold a camera and film stuff where most would drop the camera and run, Unfriended struggles with a reason to keep all these kids chatting it up over video chat for an extended period of time and it hurts the experience in the end. Probably the biggest problem I had with the logic behind the film is that somehow out of seven kids chatting for over an hour, not a one of them had any parents or siblings at home when they were which once again felt artificial, as if these kids were isolated from the rest of the world in a way that just isn’t possible.
Now, all of these cinematic sins could be overlooked if the film were scary or even a bit original with its horror aspects, but it fails at even the most basic traits of the genre. The deaths are unimaginative to say the least, but worse than the actual deaths are how they are captured on film. For some reason, all these kids have a near picture perfect connection over Skype until one of them is about to die and then suddenly they get a crap connection when they are about to die. I know there is probably some sort of meta joke that can be made about people dying from a bad internet connection, but let’s stick with the fact that it just looks kind of shitty and fails to give horror fans any sort of satisfaction when these horrible kids bite it.
It doesn’t even make sense in the context of the film. Laura’s spirit is clearly tormenting these kids (as demonstrated by an extended game of “I Have Never Ever”) and if she is the one controlling their internet connections, why would she prevent them from seeing their friends killed in these grisly fashions? A lack of gore could be forgiven if the film were at least scary, which it isn’t. Aside from a single shot of one of the kids sitting perfectly still for an extended period of time, which was just unnerving more than scary, Unfriended never takes full advantage of its format by messing with the audience on their end. Why does our conduit computer screen never freak out or have any hidden effects going on? With a static background for the entire film, it is sad that the filmmakers never utilized something so obvious to get under our skin more.
Unfriended has all sorts of problems. It isn’t scary, isn’t gory and fails at reaching the level or authenticity it so wishes it had (When was the last time someone you know was able to send a 16 gigabyte file to 6 people simultaneously and have them download/install it in under 1 minute?). If you had to label the film or liken it to something, it is this sort of hybrid of Paranormal Activity meets Saw meets I Know What You Did Last Summer meets the Youtube generation. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with borrowing from those films, there is a problem when you borrow the worst parts of those films and combine them to make something that cannot even rely on its gimmick to get by let alone the disparate pieces of these other more successful horror flicks.
Unfriended isn’t a bad film so much as it is a missed opportunity. The found footage genre is in great need of having some new life breathed into it and this seemed like an interested route to take. Ultimately though the film fails at bringing anything new to either the found footage or horror genre and will have most actually wishing it was a found footage style film, something I never thought I would find myself saying. As an experiment the film is interesting, but as a feature length film it is riddled with problems that have already been solved by other better examples of the horror genre and because of that this is one film experience that deserves to be unfriended by everyone.