Movie Review: "Unfriended" (2014)

 Perhaps I am getting a wee tad soft in my advanced age, but although I truly do adore horror, I've somewhat become apathetic. Don't get me wrong, if I see a quality fright flick I would never shy away from expressing my appreciation for it and like the white knight would jump to its defense (without reason). But for the most part, quality horror and suspense comes in dribs and drabs these days, especially when it comes to movies that dabble in the supernatural and even moreso horror movies done in the much maligned cinema verite format that is profitable at the same time as it is preposterous.

We all know the benefits and the drawbacks of this notion so I won't wax lyrical about a song we already know, so allow me to cut to the chase; contrary to what impressions you may initially have about Unfriended, it is actually one of the better found-footage freakers out there. Now that's not to say it is the Second Coming, goodness no, but it is a respectable step in a cautiously intriguing right direction.

The plot is incredibly and, at first, disappointingly straight forward: a pretty teenage girl is ridiculed by her school-age peers, kills herself, and, one year later, her spirit returns to seek revenge on her tormentors during a fateful Skype conference call. Boom. That is your plot. Nothing else to add, no twist, no nothing. Meat and potatoes. But bear with me because this film does have a little more going for it beyond being another tale using cyber schlock.

The movie starts with a bunch of teenage friends getting together over Skype to talk shop and shit; life, going to concerts, who is dating who and all around gossip, not unlike teens do. This is the first thing that struck me: these actors were for the most part the appropriate age for the characters and not only that, none of them are really big name personalities at all. Not being able to say "Oh hey, it's So and So" every time an actor appears on screen is actually more of a blessing than a curse because it adds a sense of realism.

Additionally, the film for the most part takes places in a Skype chat room and anybody who is a garden variety user of Skype will tell you that the messenger does not run perfectly. Every now and again, the characters on screen will be chatting and their faces don't always match up synch with the movements of their mouths. But perhaps one of the most important elements of this storytelling mechanism is the fact the Skype conversation takes place from one computer monitor rather than all of them, which means, most of the action we see, most of the stuff we hear, is from the perspective of the character of Blaire (Shelley Hennig).

When things start to get hinky, we aren't shown what is occurring to her friends, we only see from her point of view. What we see surprisingly isn't that much compared to what is strongly implied and the images we make up in our minds to fill in the blanks. I love it when movies do that because they show they are actually considering the intelligence of its audience to be above the concrete operation stage of development. Throughout the progress of the film, we see Blaire bring up numerous webpages such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like as she surfs the web as she chats to her friends. She writes private messages throughout the conversation and sometimes she thinks better of something potentially hurtful she is about to type and deletes it. We get to know about her as a person which is a unique novelty considering most films rely on either verbal exposition or physical actions made by a focus character. What Blaire looks at, what she reads, offers a detailed cross-section of her character.

The film in general quite blatantly refers to the nonsensical cruelty people on the internet express to each other on a regular basis. The internet is a wonderful source of information, of intelligence and social connectivity, but with it comes the ability to abuse power. How much do we hit up rag sites that name and shame people, be it anonymous faces or celebrities. Behind a computer screen we are mighty as we make ourselves to be and if there are those out there who oppose us, we rain cybernetic fire and brimstone down upon their heads. We don't give a crap because we don't know them; all we see them as are avatars, photos, handles, tags, not as people.

With this freedom comes the ability to say anything we damn well please be it in the form of heavy-handed trolling, rape shaming, doxing, bullying, suicide and other things that we normally wouldn't dare to spurt out in person. Granted it's a vastly complicated and dynamic phenomenon that is not as straight forward as we would prefer it to be, but there can be no denying this behavior and exists. If we are given the opportunity to do something without the threat of repercussion through the gift of being just another face in the cloud crowd, there is something in us all that can't help but do it.

Unfriendeds' plot centers around this very basic idea to be sure, but what makes it work contextually is that it takes place through the eyes of teenagers; our teenage years are ruthless to say the least. The idea of the Personal Fable is riding on our awkward hormonal backs when we are in high school as we are discovering all sorts of things about ourselves and each other. We push our limits, we push the limits of others, we form new connections with friends, lovers and re-evaluate old ones with our parents and our relatives. When a young person in high school farts in class, everybody knows about it. There is nowhere to hide and quickly you become obsessed with how you are perceived and do everything in your power to be accepted. It's a battlefield.

For the most part, the characters are more or less stock; jock, stoner, risque, nerd, cool, the very same canon fodder we see for the genre and apart from Blaires' personal ventures online we really learn next to nothing about her friends as actual people. Then again, perhaps that is the film once again providing that notion that if you are on the screen, that is your heart, your identity. You are not seen as a complete person, no matter how open you may feel you are being.

In terms of the more outlandish set pieces, well, again, there is only so much we actually see that the film provides but at the same time, when a character sees something troubling on their screen, we only see their reactions, almost never the cause of them. That's actually a damn good approach when you think about it. Several times a character will see something either on their screen or something just out of the webcams' field of vision and their expressions are enough to unnerve you and make you think "What exactly are they seeing?".

Unfriended isn't the first horror film to explore the terrors of teenagers combined with the unexplained using the found footage formula, nor does it offer anything overwhelmingly innovative but due to its themes, novel layout and underlying cautionary tale that still remains relevant now is a damn valiant strike that I feel deserves to at least be given consideration by buffs of the genre and casual goers alike.

Although highly unlikely to be remembered for eons to come in the same ranks as say The Exorcist or Halloween, Unfriended holds its ground by being content with what it is and unlike the teenage characters in this movie, it does not buckle under self-conscious pressure.
That's pretty damned commendable if you ask me.
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  1. If you or someone you know is contemplating hurting themselves because of social media bullying, please seek help. This is just a movie and your life is worth more than a Hollywood script.