Found footage is a dying trend in 21st Century horror, and good riddance to it. It’s ugly, distracting, contrived, and somehow, from Blair Witch through Paranormal Activity to Cloverfield, the protagonists are unlikeable even as characters in horror films go. Fortunately though, Unfriended isn’t a found footage at all, because this isn’t “footage” and nobody’s “finding” it. Instead, the whole film is a live, real-time transcript of a single laptop screen over eighty minutes. Whether that sounds impossibly dull or quite intriguing might well depend on your age and/or your familiarity with applications such as Skype, Facebook, YouTube, and Google, because while the tension often depends on systems not working how they should, the script is usually too busy being tense and tight to fuss with exposition, though a character does need both the concept of “trolling” and the drinking game “Never Have I Ever” explained to her. What kind of teen is she?
Like all of the teens we see in this film, she’s the bad kind. Some may come off more likable than others, but they’re all bad eggs who bully, lie, cheat, and continue to call themselves good people at heart. Luckily, what seems to be the ghost of their friend Laura, who killed herself as a result of their cyberbullying a year ago today, and may herself have been a bit of a bully while she lived, is on hand to tear their group apart both emotionally and literally.
To those having trouble picturing how the film even works, we’re looking at the laptop of one of these teens, Blaire. Blaire, as a child of her generation, is adept at multitasking: she has Facebook open (of course), she’s using Skype to call her friends, she has a tab open for watching episodes of Teen Wolf (probably intrigued by how much she resembles the character of Malia Tate on that programme), she wants to know the meaning behind Johnny Cash’s song “Spiritual” (joke’s on her: he didn’t write it, the 90s band Spain did), she’s listening to her “rando” playlist on Spotify, and she even has an album of kitty pics, though sadly she never opens it. The first sign that something’s up is the appearance of a silent member with no profile picture in their Skype session, and things get weirder from there. What we see, then, when Skype isn’t the active tab as it is through most of the film, is Blaire minimising various windows, using an IM service to privately express her unease to her boyfriend, frantically Googling “dead friend facebook account”, and so on. When Skype isn’t open, we can’t see our main character, or any character at all, which is quite daring, though Blaire’s cursor sometimes functions like an avatar; we can almost read her thoughts by what she moves it towards, when she’s decisive, when she can’t make up her mind, when she just waves it around out of frustration. A similarly clever touch is being able to see the things that Blaire types out, re-types, and ultimately never clicks “Send”. It is quite amazing the degree of emotional intimacy afforded by watching someone’s laptop over their shoulder, as it were.
Despite all of this smart use of a gimmick, the film wouldn’t be entertaining at all if it weren’t carried by strong performances; but then, it is. Our six Skypers shot the film as a single long take, using GoPros as webcams, in different rooms of the same house, and it must have been an exhausting experience for all of them, especially since it means no hiding a weak performance behind smart editing or good scoring choices.
After all this praise, however, it stands to reason that the film isn’t exactly perfect. It has a title that doesn’t really describe what it’s about very well. Actually, Unfriended would have been a better title for The Social Network than The Social Network, though it’s a better title for Unfriended than its awful initial release title, Cybernatural. Its plot, while gripping in the moment, barely stands up to scrutiny once the film is over, and while the dread that leads up to each death is nice, the deaths themselves are a little childish, touched with the dull strive for creativity that afflicts weak slasher films. By far the scariest death is the one that’s only implied, the one that isn’t violent. It’s a shame also that the creators felt the need for a Carrie-esque final scare that really ruins the mood of the otherwise strong ending.
But if the movie doesn’t transcend the Dead Teenager genre, it may well reinvent it. The first film of its kind, Unfriended is guaranteed not to be the last, with a sequel already greenlit; and if it doesn’t quite deal with its cyberbullying theme with the depth one might have hoped for, it must be said that it’s never once boring, and maybe that’s the most important thing.
So do you plan on seeing Unfriended? Have you already seen it? Be sure to let us know all about it in the comment box below and be sure to visit Christian Robshaw’s site Mediocre Batman!