IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 83 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
High school student Blaire Lily, one year after her childhood friend Laura Barns killed herself because of incessant online abuse she received from a YouTube video, has a conversation on Skype with her boyfriend Mitch Roussel interrupted by three of their friends and an unnamed, faceless account with the screen name billie227 which cannot be hung up on and sends messages demanding justice for Laura. Then Laura’s old Facebook account is reactivated with messages demanding that Blaire and the other spill their secrets. Could it be a prank by someone, or something far scarier?
It’s easy to be cynical about something like Unfriended. You can imagine somebody pitching this: “Hey, I’ll tell you what? You know all these kids who live out their lives on social media and spend so much time glued to a screen that they have little idea what’s going on around or in front of them? Let’s make a film for them that is, for its entire duration, a screen. They’ll love it because they can relate, and as for older people – well, the ones who like it will either understand how much the film is ‘of the now’ and the ones who don’t are just old fashioned bores who have no idea of how life is led these days”.
Well, it seems to have worked. For some reason, the film has got quite a few good reviews and has been so successful that a sequel has already been announced. Wait, I said “for some reason”? Yes, I did. Frankly I found Unfriended, which was called Offline during shooting and then Cybernatural before settling on Unfriended, a thoroughly tiresome experience and I honestly cannot believe how someone can call what is little more than a bunch of unpleasant teenagers chatting and rowing on Skype for nearly an hour and a half, interspersed with roughly one minute of actual horror, a good film. I suppose it was only a matter of time that the Found Footage genre would come to this. Some might say that I found the film so unendurable because I’m out of touch, being one of those people who limits his usage of social media to a minimum, but I honestly cannot see what is interesting about looking at a desktop for an hour and a half when you can do it for free at home. The entire film is spent looking at static web browser and programme windows, and within those windows smaller video boxes featuring closeups of the heroine’s friends while they are usually sat at their computers, or text bubbles featuring the written exchanges between two characters [much of it in the typical, lazy shorthand of digital communication]. And that’s it. Frankly, I think that the filmmakers have played us for fools, and we’ve bought it. God help cinema.
Now that last statement may seem ridiculous, but I actually went into the cinema with an open mind and in the mood to be scared. Like probably many horror fans I’m sometimes able to get myself to “that place” where I’m easily frightened. And in fact, Unfriended does begin in an okay manner. The first thing we see on the heroine’s desktop is a message on LiveLeak website being told that the video they are about to watch is disturbing and they must agree to be 18 or older to view it. The person accepts. The description top says this is a response to a YouTube video anonymously posted [with a link]. The blurry video is played, showing a girl on a schools baseball field with a gun pointed at her face. People scream out at her to drop the gun but then she shoots herself. Everyone screams. The video is stopped as people run to her. The YouTube link is clicked and begins to play. We now see the same girl at a party, drunk, lying on a table with a guy on top of her, before the video is interrupted by a Skype message from Mitch, the boyfriend of the girl whose POV we have adopted. Surprisingly the dark tone continues in a jokey, flirty conversation with a sinister edge as Mitch pretends to threaten Blaire sexually with a knife and she undresses while insisting he carries on threatening her. Sadly then Blaire’s other mates join in and the realisation soon dawns that these irritating, self-absorbed irritants are going to remain onscreen for the majority of the rest of the film.
They chat and chat, shout and shout, and chat and chat again. There is a small amount of suspense when they can’t seem to get rid of billy227, but it’s frankly pathetic that the film’s stabs at tension all involve staring at the spinning circle of a video that’s loading, the long pauses between instant messages when the person on the other end is occupied with something else, watching files download, and Blaire typing and deleting – and re-typing and again deleting – various messages to the ghost in the machine that seems to be the spirit of the girl that she and her friends drove to commit suicide. The film really ‘lost it’ for this critic when it seems like something bad has happened to one of the group’s friends and not a single one of these horrible losers tries to phone her or [God forbid] get off their arse and leg it to their house [yes, it’s explained why they shouldn’t leave their computers, but it seemed to me to be lazy gimmickry rather than proper plotting]. Then again, they don’t ever use the lovely Power button either. You do get a few effective, if very brief, kills in the second half of the film which show some imagination, but the images getting more and more pixellated quickly becomes boring and as with most bad horror movies these days the final scenes are mostly just lots of yelling and screaming. It’s initially interesting to see billie227 turn the others against each other by forcing them to reveal secrets in a game, but they could have made a much better film [though I’m not sure I’d really call this a film] if they’d turned it into a full-on slasher movie. They could have still kept some of the online stuff without having it become the entire movie.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a film where every character is revealed to be a bad sort, and this film also seems to finish on an effectively downbeat, slightly ambiguous note, only for it to then give us a stupid jump scare which, while quite welcome in such a boring picture, seems out of place. For God’s sake filmmakers, at least have the courage of your misplaced, stupid convictions. There’s been much praise for the great deal of attention to detail, though it matters zilch when the overall movie is so limited and tedious, and there’s even the odd sly touch like the shortcut to a dictionary programme at the bottom left of the screen, something which is clearly meant for those who prefer proper spelling and grammar while communicating. The songs playing on Blaire’s Spotify are used ironically and the performers initially seem reasonably convincing in their mostly clichéd roles, but soon seem to either over-react or under-react to everything without any middle ground. Apparently each take had script alterations on the fly and the cast improvised as they reacted to the changes, then acted out the entire film in one take. What a shame that it wasn’t for a better movie.
Unfriended never really gives a sense of the dangers of living one’s life online and for much of its running time feels closer to a reality show than a screen chiller. It does have the odd good moment but, while it has undoubtedly proved effective for many, and like it or not relates to how a lot of young people spend their lives [though I’d like to think that modern teens aren’t as naïve as the ones depicted in the film], I can’t help but think that Unfriended represents a worryingly new low for the horror film, and one that is probably destined to be copied and even topped for brain numbing tedium. The folk making films like this don’t really have to do anything, just show some stuff on a screen. No real talent is actually required. The Blair Witch Project for the internet generation? If a computer screen full of other people looking at computer screens is the way horror, and possibly even cinema as a whole, is going than you can count me out.