The concept of cyber bullying and cyber shaming are relatively new. When I was in high school, if you did something stupid only the people who were there could see it and there were no smartphones to record and upload your faux pas to the internet since that didn’t exist either. You might have a few days of embarrassment as your friends and a few others ribbed you about your stupidity but it would soon pass. Now with YouTube, Snap Chat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media, poorly chosen words and drunken misbehavior can be seen by the entire world with an internet connection in just a few minutes. Author Jon Ronson has written a book about how once a bit of blood hits the online virtual water, the sharks and piranha of public shaming gather for a feeding frenzy. His book covers mostly adults who have faced real-world consequences for a post that if said IRL (In Real Life) to one or two people would have generated no backlash at all; however, with the lack of context and the inability to transmit tone via a tweet or Facebook status post, jobs have been lost and lives have been ruined to the point of suicide. In “Unfriended,” the ugly side of social media and how it can affect young lives is the subject told in the genre of found-footage horror. It’s an interesting idea that is ruined by a dull movie.
Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is watching a video on Live Leak of the suicide one year earlier of her friend Laura (Heather Sossaman). Laura had been the subject of a YouTube video shot at a party showing her drunk, bullying other girls at the party and then passed out and apparently having soiled herself. Blaire receives a Skype video call from her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm). They discuss the upcoming prom and how Blaire wants to have sex for the first time with Mitch after the dance. Their video chat is interrupted by Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead) and Adam (William Peltz) joining their Skype call. There is a sixth person on the call but they have no video feed and their user name of Billie227 is unknown to the group. After a couple of attempts to remove Billie227 from the call the group decides it must be another of their friends Val (Courtney Halverson) playing some kind of trick. They call Val but she is not the one behind Billie227. Soon, pictures of Val showing her drunk and smoking pot from a bong begin to show up on Facebook and it appears Jess is responsible. Jess claims she’s innocent but a huge shouting match between the two breaks out. During the argument, Blaire is able to connect Billie227 to Laura’s old Skype account. Blaire tries to take the steps to memorialize Laura’s Facebook page to prevent anyone from using it to harass her and her friends but she finds that’s impossible. Soon, Blaire begins receiving direct messages from someone claiming to be Laura, warning her to stay on the Skype call or she will die. The rest of the friends also receive similar messages with Billie227 using the chat function to talk to them all. Billie227 claims to be Laura and posts a video on Facebook of Val telling Laura she should kill herself. Val calls the police but her video feed goes out. It reappears a little later showing Val but it looks like the image is frozen as it just shows Val looking at the laptop camera. Blaire tries to call her cell and they can hear and see the phone vibrating on the table next to the motionless Val. A sudden boom is heard and the camera falls over. The group can hear the police entering the home and communicating with dispatch that they believe Val has killed herself. Ken, the resident hacker, tries to get rid of Laura by sending everyone a program that will block her from being in the Skype call. It works for a few seconds but Laura soon reappears and is unhappy with Ken who is attacked by an unseen force that makes him kill himself. Now Laura says she wants to play a game of Never Have I Ever with the loser dying.
“Unfriended” mixes social media with found-footage horror. It’s an interesting idea that is poorly executed. The movie takes place entirely during a Skype call. There are no scenes of the characters in their homes or at school. It is all shown from a computer screen. I think the idea was to give the film a feeling of claustrophobia, locked into the space of a laptop display with no way to escape. After a few minutes I wanted to escape as this singular view gets dull quickly. While we get a look at websites like Live Leak, YouTube, Facebook, Chat Roulette and a paranormal webpage, the static image of web browsers and Skype video chat isn’t terribly interesting past a point. While I am way outside the target audience for “Unfriended” I can’t see how viewers in their teens and 20’s would find this visually interesting.
The other major problem with “Unfriended” is it isn’t terribly scary. The thumbnail images of the characters in the Skype call don’t give us enough information about their surroundings to convey the feeling of dread and suspense when the entity or spirit or ghost is about to attack them. There are also times when the images become distorted and there are large amounts of digital junk making seeing the characters difficult. I believe this is a way to hide edits since the film is supposed to be shot in real time. This is also a way to show a character just fine one moment and being attacked the next. Since the digital garbage shows up randomly throughout the movie it doesn’t really do anything to heighten the suspense. When a character believes there’s someone or something in the house, they pick up their laptop and carry it with them giving the audience a lovely close up view of that character’s shirt or throat. It just looks stupid and, again, does nothing to build up tension. While there are a few mild scares you won’t have to worry about any undiagnosed heart conditions if you see the movie.
It doesn’t help “Unfriended” that none of the characters are terribly likable. Only Blaire and Mitch at first come off as relatively decent people and even they have secrets exposed that show they aren’t any better than the others. None of the characters are developed past their basic stats and the types that are expected in a teen horror flick. Once some secrets are exposed the characters often begin arguing, shouting over each other. During one of these I wished the ghost would just kill them all simultaneously to put me out of their misery. “Unfriended” is a largely unpleasant experience.
“Unfriended” is rated R for some sexuality, pervasive language, drug and alcohol use by teens and violent content. There is some sexually suggestive talk early in the film that is tinged with some violence. Video and pictures of sex acts between some of the characters is very mild and has no nudity; however some of the video makes it clear what is happening. One character is shown using a bong in a picture while another is shown using one during the video chat. Alcohol use is both suggested and shown. The film starts with video of a girl committing suicide using a gun. We see another person who is killing themselves by mangling his arm in a blender. We see the aftermath of a suicide where a curling iron is shoved down their throat and it appears to be on as smoke is seen coming out. A character stabs himself in the head with a knife.
For the second week in a row I’ve seen a teen-focused horror film with an interesting premise that is ruined by the execution. “It Follows” looked cheap and had an overbearing musical score. “Unfriended” is worse because it is locked on one view of a laptop screen with wonky images of the unlikable characters and very few scares. For a while the horror genre has been blessed with cheaply made movies that are still able to deliver the scares; but lately it has been proving more and more difficult to find these gems and the last several have been lacking.
“Unfriended” gets two stars out of five.
Several new films hit theatres this week to get out of the way of the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” juggernaut. I’ll see and review one of them.
Age of Adeline—
While We’re Young—
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