Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Unfriended (2015)

Unfriended (2015)

Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use - all involving teens

Unfriended is a movie that, just from the title and the plot, you go into expecting an absolute atrocity. Not only is it a found footage movie, it's one told entirely through a computer screen, through Skype, YouTube, email, social media, and news websites. On top of that, it's about cyberbullying, the subject of many a made-for-TV movie and "very special episode" in the last five years. The plot is that, one year ago, a teenage girl was driven to suicide by bullying, and now, her ghost has come back to kill her tormentors through the computers they used to make her life a living hell. Poorly handled, this could've become a disaster of a film, with a gimmick that gets old and annoying very quickly, a cast of total dipshits who you can't wait to see die, and a message that's heavy-handed and preachy yet simultaneously shallow. And yet, as I write this first paragraph, it not only has a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes (in other words, the approval of professional critics, the sorts of people who normally hate teen horror movies), it also has the acclaim of a number of horror websites calling it one of the smartest and most original scary movies in recent memory. As somebody who saw It Follows last month and got absolutely blasted out of his seat, those are strong words. So what did I think of this movie that, by all accounts, isn't just a whole lot better than it has any right to be, but is in fact really damn good?

Well, it's really damn good, and a whole lot better than it has any right to be. I guarantee that it's gonna be divisive, especially with its gimmick, but instead of merely resting on it like a lesser film would, it uses it as a foundation for an intelligent exploration of cyberbullying, while delivering a villain with a truly twisted sense of humor who I won't soon forget. Unfriended is no rival to It Follows for the title of best horror film of 2015, but it's still a very intriguing one that, by and large, pulls off its unique conceit remarkably well.

The big thing about this film is its twist on the worn-out "found footage" setup. Instead of seeing everything through one video camera, our perspective on the world for the entire film is the computer screen of one Blaire Lily. Blaire is a student at a high school where, one year ago that day, one of her classmates, Laura Barns, blew her brains out after a video of her blackout drunk and shitting her pants at a party was circulated by her classmates, turning the former popular girl into a laughingstock. Now, Blaire and her friends are holding a conference call on Skype to commemorate Laura's death and talk about it... only somebody calling herself "Billie" is also in on the call, communicating only via text. They can't hang up on her, and they can't disconnect from Skype. That's hardly the only thing weird going on -- Blaire's computer is glitching out, and somebody is using Laura's old Facebook and email accounts to harass her and the others. Then people start dying one by one, and before long, it's obvious that "Billie" is hardly a glitch, or even a hacker troll. She knows way too much about their personal lives, for one thing, and she uses that knowledge to turn these friends against one another, revealing their worst secrets and destroying their lives before she ends them. Laura is back, and she is pissed.

And believe me, Laura is downright twisted. She lives in Blaire's computer, using it for all manner of shenanigans. She plays suspiciously appropriate songs from Blaire's music library at critical moments, takes a pop-up ad for a "cam site" and modifies it for a vicious display of slut-shaming, and follows up one kill with a disgusting meme "commemorating" it on Facebook. Laura may be an evil spirit, but she's the evil spirit of a very modern teenage girl, and her actions have a mean streak and a huge dose of black comedy to them. She was like Regina George meets Freddy Krueger, and I was constantly awaiting just what she was going to do next. Don't mistake this for a horror-comedy, though -- the sort of humor on display here is more akin to that of the first few Nightmare on Elm Street movies, with Laura using it to get under her victims' (and the viewers') skin, making them confess to all manner of dark secrets. As a ghost, Laura has seen everything that our main characters have been up to in the last year, talking trash about each other behind their backs, sleeping with their lovers' best friends, and throwing each other under the bus when the going got tough. As such, Unfriended frequently veers into psychological thriller territory, with all the main characters' sins catching up with them in increasingly twisted ways as Laura holds them hostage through their computers.

This is where the film's greatest strength lies, in its characters who, the more we learn about them, the more we start wondering whether Laura's vengeance may be justified. Nowhere is this more true than with the heroine, Blaire, whose computer we're seeing all this through. She's presented to us as the archetypal "final girl" at the beginning -- cute, virginal, and not outwardly obnoxious like her friends -- but as the film goes on, Laura slowly peels that facade away and reveals Blaire to be just as bad as all the rest (and arguably worse), just better at hiding it. Poor performances could've made these characters insufferable, but fortunately, the cast we get, composed of a couple of teen drama stars (most notably Teen Wolf's Shelley Hennig as Blaire) and a large gaggle of unknowns, all do good work here, turning their characters into multi-layered individuals who hide their bad behavior and mindsets under a respectable teenage mask with varying degrees of success. Even when we've been shown just how awful these kids are, I still cared about them. They're pretty much every negative thing that's been so much as whispered about modern teenagers and internet anonymity brought to horrifying life; they're not evil so much as disgustingly callous and flippant, their worst tendencies only fueled by new technology that they think allows them to get away with it.

It's the deeper horror of exploring these characters that helps to make up for the fact that, in terms of sheer frights per minute, the film isn't that scary on the face of it. Much of this I attribute to the film's gimmick of taking place entirely on a computer screen, which, to its credit, it fully commits to without any cop-outs. (I imagine this film being a lot scarier if actually watched on a computer, though.) This film does not operate the same way that most horror movies do, and without many traditional elements of horror filmmaking like lighting, set design, music, and mood, the film has to be a lot more subtle with its signs that something is wrong, such as disabling various buttons on a webpage, having text boxes fill themselves with ominous notes, having windows open by themselves, putting strange links in Google searches, and leaving us to wonder if the person typing on the other end of iMessage is really who they say it is. If you're expecting a non-stop spook show that makes you fly out of your seat, you'll be bound to end up disappointed. However, once again, those looking for subtlety and intelligence in their horror will be rewarded handsomely.

Score: 4 out of 5

An unconventional horror film whose big gamble mostly pays off thanks to smart writing, interesting characters, a brisk pace, a memorable villain, and scares that stick with you. It's probably not all that substantial, but it's still one of the better horror films of 2015 thus far, and proof that supernatural horror still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

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