Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Unfriended (2015)

In terms of visual presentation and style, the new horror movie, Unfriended (2015) is very similar to The Den (2014).

Specifically, both films involve terror as it arrives through the computer screen, via chats, video messaging, and other aspects of 21st century technology.

In each movie, much of the action is confined within the rectangular frame of a laptop or other type of computer monitor, and we often see data “windows” opening and closing, as new information and contacts come into the picture.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these films involves the protagonist. The Den involved a single protagonist: a graduate student accepting any and all random chat requests for a month as part of a research project. 

By contrast, Unfriended involves a group of young adults, an apparently tight-knit “social network” of friends.

Over the course of the film, however, we learn that though these individuals may follow and communicate with one another through their myriad devices, they are far from real friends. 

After all, a friend might be defined as someone who is attached to someone else because of feelings of affection, and therefore gives (and accepts) assistance and support in life to that person.

The “friends” in Unfriended don’t fit that bill at all.

These young folks are back-stabbers, bullies, liars, and cheaters. They are all actually un-friends before the action even begins.  In fact, their casual, pervasive cruelty is the cause of all the terror depicted in the movie. If they had boasted the slightest regard or respect for one another, they wouldn’t find themselves “haunted” in Unfriended.

Having seen The Den before I screened this film, Unfriended doesn’t seem all that revolutionary in terms of its many-window computer screen structure, and more than that, the film’s visual parameters seem to stifle terror, and raise serious issues of plausibility in terms of the characters’ behavior. 

And yet, I can’t deny or ignore the “social” critique aspect of Unfriended.

Taken as a commentary on today’s plugged-in youth culture, the film possesses quite a bit of power.  

The characters transgress morally on a regular basis, feeling that they can hide behind the anonymity that the Internet and social networks provide, but learn that fate (or, perhaps, justice) knows their names.  In other words, the film adopts the old “transgression” plot of horror films (and horror comics too).  Those who act immorally face cosmic, supernatural justice for their bad behavior.

In the same way that Scream (1996) proved a social critique of the VCR-generation come of age, Unfriended gazes at the young generation today, and asks tough questions about its behavior online. Namely, is it easier to be mean to someone you are friends with online than it would be to their face? 

Psychologists have noted that anonymity provides a shield of sorts for people to do their worst, hence the vile comments sections you see at so many prominent blogs and news sites. But Unfriended suggests an opposite and eminently more horrifying equation. 

Unfriended implies that the freedom to say and do anything to anyone online has, in this case, bled over into real life, and affected how people relate to one another in the flesh-and-blood world.

In other words, people aren’t going online and just being inhuman to each other there.  They are doing that, and then bringing that inhumanity and indecency with them into their private, off-line existence.

So Unfriended asks at least one question worth pondering.

Can you really be someone’s friend if you do everything possible online to undermine them and ruin their real life?

“Don’t answer messages from the dead.”

A teenager, Blaire Lilly (Shelly Hennig) reviews footage of her friend’s suicide, posted on “Live Leak.”  She then watches the YouTube video that spawned that terrible action: a revealing and humiliating video of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) filmed at a party.

Blaire video chats with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Storm), and he warns her that he’s received a weird message.  She receives it too. 

The messenger?  The recently deceased Laura Barns.

Mitch shares with Blaire a link to a forum that warns Internet users not to accept or answer message requests from the dead, but it is too late for Blaire.  She begins communicating with the mystery user, much to her eventual regret.

As Blaire and a circle of friends -- including Mitch, Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Adam (Will Peltz), Val (Courtney Halverson), and Jess (Renee Olstead) -- video chat, a mystery guest, presumably Laura, joins them, uninvited.

This live “glitch” begins to expose the teens’ secrets one at a time, making them play a game of online “Never Have I Ever” that ends in violence and death.

“The glitch just typed.”

Unfriended suffers a bit as a work of art for two reasons, primarily.

First, there is nothing terribly appealing -- at least in terms of visuals -- about watching a movie as if we are watching a computer screen.  The film weaves chat messages, YouTube videos, video messaging and TMZ-like “Live Leak” footage into its visual tapestry, and mostly it’s just kind of headache-inducing.  It all looks and seems authentic, and so I suppose this movie might be termed found-footage (if you consider “found footage” to be a synonym for “first person footage.”)   The Den adopts the same approach, but doesn’t seem as repetitive and locked down in terms of its visual canvas. 

Significantly, Unfriended doesn’t feel very immediate or urgent for most of its run. The different “platforms” used to tell the story aren’t inherently cinematic. They are, perhaps, anti-cinematic by nature. We can watch a computer window of an incoming call, a video upload site, and a talking-head (on video), but none of these windows approximates the dynamic, kinetic action of a real movie, even one of the found footage variety. Instead, the movie looks just like my online college speech class: a group of talking heads looking back at me.

The stylistic parameters of the film end up hurting Unfriended in a very real way. None of the horror scenes manage to come off as scary, suspenseful, or even shocking.  The way a horror movie achieves those ends is by the careful use of film grammar, by the dedicated, thoughtful selection of camera angles or positions that make room for surprise. Static “views” of a computer cam can’t accommodate that approach, and so the film’s horror scenes largely fall flat.

Yet that’s okay, in some sense. I admire that Unfriended attempted to tell a movie in this fashion (as The Den did before it), even if it grows tiring after about twenty-minutes.  Still, it’s not an ambitious idea, even if it doesn’t ultimately succeed.

What seems worse here is that the film’s director, Levan Gabriadze, can’t think or shoot outside the box, outside the screen.  Terrible, terrible things happen to characters in this movie, in full view of other people, and yet everybody stays plugged to their chairs (and screens), instead of acting according to the dictates of common sense.  Some critics have suggested that this buttoned-down approach mimics cyber-bullying, but I’m not certain I buy that explanation.

Someone just made your friend put his hand in a blender?

How about grabbing the car keys and driving over to his place to see if he needs help?  You can phone the police from your iPhone in route. Here, nobody gets up off their chairs.

A killer is in your house, making you play a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever?” 

How about picking up your jacket and fleeing the house, never to look back, never to look at another screen again?  At least not until you’ve spoken to someone in authority, a police officer, a parent, or even a teacher.

Again, I absolutely understand the appeal of shooting a movie entirely consisting of various feeds, siphoned through a single computer screen.  But at some point, it simply stops being realistic that all the characters undergoing these incredibly terrifying experiences don’t attempt to leave their house, rescue a friend in the flesh, or even ask their parents for help.  In fact, in this world, parents don’t seem to exist at all.

So about two-thirds of the way through Unfriended one starts to realize that the characters could cause problems for their online harasser simply by unplugging and returning to the real world.  And once you get this idea into your head, the movie’s closing chapters seem silly and unrealistic.

The film would have been more inventive if the characters did leave their houses, but took their iPhones with them.  The killer could still reach them by iPhone via Facetime, and yet the film wouldn’t feel so static or buttoned down. We’d get some visual differentiation or variety.

One might make the argument that the teens’ inability to unplug is, in fact, a comment on a plugged in society, and I’m open to that.  I just returned from a trip to the beach recently, and I had a weird experience there.  I was jumping waves with my eight year old son, Joel, when I looked back ashore.  

There, across the beach, I saw a collection of people sitting in the sand, on blankets, all checking their devices.  They weren’t enjoying the beach, or even snapping photographs. They were tuned out of the beach, tuned into whatever web page they happened to be surfing.  They had come all the way to the beach, only to look at their tiny screens.

So one might make an argument that Unfriended is actually quite clever in the way that it doesn’t view the real world as an escape (or, therefore, rescue) from online life.  You can’t escape cyber-bullying, right?

But for that reading to hold, I would need to point to specific events or images that support this view, and, frankly, I didn’t see anything persuasive.  Let’s face it, if any of us were imperiled, while online, we would quickly fall back on real world remedies.

Despite questions of plausibility, I did find Unfriended quite powerful in its depiction of the characters.  They are all awful.  The lead character, Blaire Lilly (Shelly Hennig), is unfaithful to her boyfriend, deceitful to her friends, and a pathological liar.  She notes at one point that she and her friends are all “good people,” until the avenging specter of the film points out the myriad ways in which this statement is not true. 

To first glance, Blaire is pretty, friendly, and helpful, but the movie keeps revealing unflattering information (in terms of video footage) that undercuts our immediate impression of her, as well as her stated impression of herself.  Blaire commits horrible, horrible acts in this film (or rather, prior to the events of this film…) yet presents, on the surface, as likable and sweet. 

This is the aspect of Unfriended that truly succeeds.  We are left to ponder the idea that the “Anonymous” troll -- the bully and monster -- is not an identity that appears when one has the leeway to act without accountability, but rather the true identity.  It is the sweet, honest, friendly disposition of a “good person” that is the “handle” or mask, for Lilly, not vice versa.

This inversion is clever, and states something important about human nature as it is today, in 2015.  It’s not that the Internet allows us to hide and act badly; it’s that the Internet allows us to reveal our true selves.

This is a pretty cynical comment, and yet Unfriended doesn’t shy away from making it.  There’s not one likable young person in the film, only people that are immoral and selfish.  Laura Barns dies because she can’t live with the footage of her that was uploaded by a friend, perhaps her best friend.  

We are left wondering if she killed herself not because she was embarrassed and humiliated, but because she was betrayed by someone who should have been looking out for her; someone who should have helped her.

She died, in other worlds, because she had to reckon with the fact that her friends are not her friends at all.  And with no real friends, is life worth living? We know Laura’s answer to that question.

I mentioned The Den earlier, and Unfriended distinguishes itself from that similarly structured horror film by focusing on this concept, of a circle of so-called friends who are easily exposed and divided. It’s worth pointing out, as well, that The Den involved a real life “terror” (a pay-to-play/kill video web-site), whereas Unfriended focuses on the supernatural: online messages from the wronged dead.

Your patience for Unfriended may ultimately be tested by the film’s (bold) selection of visual format, but the film is nonetheless rewarding because of what it reveals about today’s online culture. 


  1. I was actually quite excited to see this. It seemed like a clever and timely idea and the trailers made it seem like it could be a fresh new "Final Destination" type slasher horror franchise. But I was beyond disappointed in this misfire. I left the theater irritated, cursing the filmmakers for stealing my time and money.

    Yeah, the premise itself was an interesting social critique as you point out. But the execution fails on every level. As you also pointed out, there was a complete lack of any artistry as a horror film. I wasn't expected "It Follows". But I at least was hoping for a "Final Destination 3". Instead it was just endless scenes of talking heads trying to screw each other over. Worst of all, even the murders were boring. There was simply no payoff in any way, albeit visceral or otherwise. It felt like a bad episode of some reality TV show on MTV or VH1.

  2. Jez Meyer7:57 AM

    I haven't seen Unfriended yet, but I found The Den quite weak. The premise at first appears to be a good one, but this illusion is shattered as the mood devolves from paranoid dread to nonsensical and telegraphed. I guess my biggest problem with this current trend of people being murdered for the benefit of internet voyeurs and their credit cards is that I just don't buy it - I don't buy that there are countless normal individuals out there (i.e. the dad in the closing shots) desperate to see 'real' murder on the internet. That story doesn't tap into any sort of genuine fear I have, and so whenever it's used as the motivation for horror it simply fails to engage me.