Monday, 11 May 2015

Movie Review: Unfriended (2015)



While The Blair Witch Project might be the first proper mainstream example of the found footage genre, it was Paranormal Activity that revived the genre as it stands today and, to be fair, there’s a lot that can work about a found footage movie. The ‘natural’ camera work that brings believability to the film, the low-fi aesthetic that can hide weaker special effects, not to mention being cheap as chips to make; it can be really effective, especially with horror films because that believability can make the scares hit that much harder. Problem is, however, that the majority of found footage films play it way too safe and just follow the same formula laid down for them by Blair Witch and the PA series, often leading to rather embarrassing results like the horrendous Chernobyl Diaries. Sure, there are some films that take the format in interesting directions: Cloverfield used it to make a decent monster movie and Chronicle had the simple act of filming everything add emotional weight to the main character’s story. But, for the most part, it’s pretty much same-old, same-old. So, when I saw the trailer for this and it looked like someone was going to try something different (a serious rarity these days for film in general), I just had to check it out. But is it really that original? This is Unfriended… and it already loses points for the stupid title.

The plot: On the one-year anniversary of high school student Laura’s suicide, Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her friends are on a video Skype chat when an unknown user logs into the conversation claiming to be Laura. The group thinks that it’s just a random internet troll but, as the conversation continues, it is very clear that whoever it is blames them for her death and wants revenge.

Okay, might as well get the gimmick of the film out of the way first: The entire film is presented through a real-time screen capture of Blaire’s MacBook. Everything that happens in the film (save for one small moment) is shown through that screen, using YouTube, FaceBook, Skype, Spotify and even ChatRoulette (yeah, that hasn’t faded out or anything!) to help the plot unfold. It even manages to get down video glitches and have them look like they actually do on Skype and on computers in general, instead of just being cheap static like some films resort to; one look at the Universal logo and how it looks here will tell you all you need to about how definite they look. Honestly, I think that the effectiveness of this will depend on how much time the viewer spends on the computer day-by-day (As a complete shut-in, this worked really well for me), as I can see some people might be thrown off by it and find it as interesting as watching someone use their computer over their shoulder IRL for 80-or-so minutes. Actually, the fact that this film goes for only that long makes the gimmick a lot more tolerable; something tells me that even I would get pretty annoying if the film tried to push for two hours. Nevertheless, if this shows nothing else, it at least proves that the filmmakers know what they’re talking about and aren’t just trying (and failing) to relate to how teenagers are online.

It’s a rather unfortunate trope of modern day horror films to have the main cast be so unlikeable that the audience actively wants to see them dead and root for the killer; I’d rather not sit through a horror film and have the filmmakers bill me as a sadist from the get-go… true, I have wanted characters dead in films I’ve reviewed before, but it’s usually a bad idea to actively want that reaction from audiences. As the plot here centers on the rather touchy subject of cyber-bullying and its consequences, I can kind of understand going for this angle when it comes to our main cast. Even if I’m really not a fan of this style of characterization, I will at least give credit where it’s due in that they aren’t written in over-the-top evil fashion. There are a couple of really vile moments, mostly to do with the whole “kill urself” thing, but they do come across as people who exist in the real world… for better or for worse. The actors all do well with their roles and the writing gives some nice minor notes to help the proceedings, like the moment when Blaire gets jump-scared by her computer but it was just an alarm she set for herself to study for a test the next day. It also plays around with the classic last survivor tropes too, dropping small hints about how morally innocent Blaire is only to twist things around once Laura gets into the game of Never Will I Ever, which becomes the centerpiece of the majority of the film. It is here that my biggest gripe with the film reveals itself.

The main part of the film consists of Laura getting the main group to admit their sins, be it against Laura or against each other, under threat of death if they don’t admit or try to hang up the call; what it essentially boils down to is a re-working of Saw. What makes this sit a bit uneasily with me is how this pretty much reads like a cyber-victim’s power fantasy; getting bloody revenge on the bullies and so forth. Now, I will admit that I have been on both sides of this equation: I have indulged in a bit of cyber-bullying myself in my high school days, albeit not nearly to this extent, and I have been a victim of it as well. It’s a very tricky tightrope to walk to portray this kind of dichotomy well, especially on film, and this film does some good and some bad. It may show our cast as mostly jokers who got in way over their heads and sort of sympathetic, but they are still characterized as pretty horrible people to begin with; realistically so, I grant you, but horrible nonetheless. This really would have benefitted if they were written less with sadism in mind.

What really makes this work though, despite real flaws with the writing, is its atmosphere. It does indulge in quite a few noisy jump scares (because every mainstream horror film must have them by law) and the soundtrack can get pretty jarring at times; it’s all played through Spotify and, while the song choices fit contextually, it can kill the tension pretty easily. However, through the use of the screen capture, some really good sound editing to echo the effect of when you focus on one thing and whatever noise in the background fades away, and the commendable restraint on going more full-on with its death scenes bring some serious foreboding to the bulk of the film. The death scenes vary from basic to the goofy side of being creative, but the video glitches that result in only bits and pieces of them being shown works in the film’s favor. There’s also something to be said about the whole “what we do out of desperation” bit of psychology that Saw constantly toyed around with, which is also put to decent use here as well with how the game of Never Will I Ever progresses.

All in all, while I definitely give some major props to the production choices here as this is certainly a very unique specimen of a found footage movie visually speaking, the plot treads a lot of the same ground as other horror movies and ultimately plays out like a teenager’s revenge fantasy. The camerawork, acting and editing bring a very tense atmosphere to the table, but it’s very much surface shock and isn’t something that’s going to leave an on-going feeling of dread like some of the greater horror films can pull off. It ranks higher than The Gunman, as I am a major sucker for these kinds of films and the chills I got from this one outweigh the action fun I got from Gunman. However, even with the weak rom-com plot, Manny Lewis was better written and hit a bit closer to home for me emotionally. If you’re like me and can get into horror films like Paranormal Activity for a bit of rollercoaster horror that leaves a few aftershocks but nothing too substantial, then this might be a good fit for you.

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