Impressions: Unfriended

I am more than a little late to the Unfriended party, but I was curious, so I took it when I got the chance to watch. I knew the basic idea and the gist of the story, but other than it being considered a disappointment, I went in fairly blind. When approaching my thoughts on this movie, I there are two different things to discuss: the concept and what was done with that concept. To start, some background. Unfriended is a “computer screen” horror movie, as some call it, others put it with found footage although it doesn’t truly belong there. Our viewpoint is a single computer screen for our main character, Blaire. We are watching what she is doing on her computer.

This is an interesting concept. The movie came out in 2014 and really dives into using the technology, sometimes successfully sometimes not. Blaire spends most of the movie in a group call with her best friends and boyfriend, but we also see her Facebook feed, direct chats with people, etc. This is actually pretty interesting. We were well into the obsessed with our computers phase, so I am a bit surprised that this has not been tried more. While the idea presents a lot of limitations, there is something almost ironically freeing about them. It challenges creativity.

The actors and filmmakers are extremely limited in what they can do, and it surprisingly works well. For all the problems I have with the characters (more on that later), I do have to give the actors credit. A few of them over hammed it up, but for the most part, they did fine with the limitations. Everything is focused on them, their faces, their reactions. There isn’t freedom in movement or a lot of chances for body acting. This is a challenge, and there were varying degrees of success. I wouldn’t say anyone failed, especially given the young ages of those involved.

As for the horror itself, there is not much that can be done, so I was impressed by how well it played out. There are a few noticeably bad moments, notably when Blaire uses Chatroulette to call for help. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and also was that still really a thing? But there were a lot of great moments. When one character dies, we keep seeing his cam turn off then turn back on for something horrifying, out then in. It was actually rather effective and well used. There is also a surprisingly decent amount of suspense. Creating suspense in this atmosphere is hard. You can’t imply something is watching them, or have things creeping around corners, or even really use sound. Also, the characters fall so hard into their various tropes you know the order they are going to be picked off almost from the start. Still the filmmakers did a good job with pacing, and it did help bridge some of the gaps to keep this movie from being too predictable.

Blaire’s surfing can get annoying, however. The movie clearly wanted to tell us things and had to do so without the use of traditional storytelling methods. But Blaire would click out, then click in, then over hover on something like a sentence from a forum, and it would feel awkward and a little dull. Beyond that, the movie can be difficult to watch. So much is dependent on being able to see small typing and such. You either need a big screen or one you can get close to, and you have to prepare for long stretches of nothing but typing.

But all in all, I like the concept. When it worked, it worked well and was unique and interesting. Sadly a lot of moments it didn’t. Still, they tried something different, and I appreciate that. I have often maintained that I like to see people try something, even if it doesn’t land perfectly, rather than just keep doing the same safe thing.

So what about what is done with the concept. Well… I want to give people warnings I will be spoiling, and this movie deals with things that might be upsetting for people, namely sexual assault and suicide.

The back story is that Blaire’s friend group used to have a girl named Laura. One night Laura got incredibly drunk while being filmed. She starts off seemingly having a good time but keeps insisting she wants to go to sleep and is then possibly assaulted before defecating herself and passing out. While the actual incident(s) are not shown, the aftermath is, and it’s… gruesome. All of this is to set up the premise of “cyberbullying is bad,” which is not a bad concept, but Laura did not need to be assaulted (or even implied assault) and then bullied to get to that point.

I actually don’t know if I am more or less bothered by them skirting the issue of whether or not something happened to her while she was passed out drunk. They do a lot to imply it, and I think they should have picked. I think sexual assault is overused as a plot point in general, but especially in horror. However, the solution to that doesn’t lay in pushing the audience to believe it is what happened but then pretending that people got there themselves. There is a lot of mentions of sexual assault in this movie; it’s kind of a thing and not a good one.

Anyway. The video is released, and instead of being horrified for Laura, teenagers bully her into killing herself. Flash forward a year later, and Blaire is talking to her boyfriend when their friends call. When the friends first start chatting, they notice an uninvited person and keep trying to get them out. Slowly that person begins to post under Laura’s Facebook, starts to harass them, and escalates.

Eventually, one friend leaves the call to call the cops (ummm what?), and when she comes back, we are treated to her death by apparent suicide. Some of them doubt it, and the escalation continues until they realize that it is Laura’s spirit who is out for them. Laura gets them to play some games and taunts them. Slowly the group unravels as more of their bad behavior is revealed, and they are picked off one by one.

As I said earlier, I really didn’t care for the characters in this movie, and they lean hard into various tropes. I realize that I am not this movie’s core demographic, I am just a few years too old. The thing is, I am no stranger to the horror genre, and that is perpetually part of it. Once you hit a certain point you are always technically “too old,” but so many of us still love them, I still love them. I can usually get over my “ugh what annoying kids” and enjoy, but these kids are particularly hard to do that with.

There is not a single redeeming trait among the whole group of them. They have the typical teen obnoxiousness thrown in but with an extra heaping layer of awful on top. No one in the group shows any sympathy for Laura, and many of them admit to doing downright horrific things as the “games” unfold. They are just awful characters, and so it takes away a lot of the fear that comes from concern for the characters themselves. It also makes it a bit of a chore to watch. In truth, it is likely not because the characters are so much worse, the horror genre is filled with awful teens, but that we are more “stuck” with them. Because of the way the movie was made we never get a break from them.

Character development is also a bit lacking. No one but Blaire, our main character, really develops. That is fine, again teen horror, but her development is a bit off. Blaire is meant to be the “good girl” of the group but then plays with the final girl trope by slowly showing you how awful she is. She is no final girl. The problem is as the awfulness comes out, it becomes rather clear that everyone knew she was a horrible person and just went along with it. There is no appearance of anyone honestly believing she was good or being stunned to see how far she pushed Laura. Without showing the friend group being genuinely stunned by some of Blaire’s actions/words, it doesn’t have much impact.

Really overall, it becomes a disappointment. The concept is a cool one, so it’s rather disappointing that it’s locked into the story it is. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the trope of a girl driven to suicide then coming back for revenge in a horror movie, nor is it the best example of it. I understand they wanted to highlight the dangers of cyberbullying and showed the teen’s almost addiction to the internet and social media. I also think there are limitations in the type of story they can tell while still using this format. Still, I think developing the story and characters better could have helped them pull off the teen slasher they were going for just slightly more successfully.

Let me get the bottom line out of the way before I mention the ending. Skip the last paragraph if you want to watch this movie without knowing. And by the way, I do recommend people watch it. I am not going to say that you will love this movie, it needs some work. However, the concept is fresh, and it does manage to be entertaining and mildly scary at time. I think it’s worth watching at least once as a genre fan, and I am curious what other movies that follow this concept are out there (I know about the sequel and The Den). I think for all of the average reviews out there, there are some parts of this movie worth taking note of, and there is some enjoyment to be had. I wish it were slightly “easier” to watch so I could do multiple viewings, but I am glad I saw it the once and will probably revisit it someday. Give it a go if you haven’t or maybe even consider a rewatch. I can’t go back in time to see how I would have felt about it in 2014, but I do feel like the last six years have impacted how it might be viewed for both better and worse.

So about that ending- One by one, everybody is picked off, leaving only Blaire. It is noteworthy that Blaire is at least partially responsible for many (all) of the deaths. Laura then reveals she knew all along that Blaire was instrumental in what happened to her and the original source of the video. This is posted online, and Blaire starts to receive many messages along the same vein as what drove Laura to suicide. STOP end the movie right there. Blaire has lost her boyfriend and all her friends. Everyone else she knows has now been told of her involvement in what happened to Laura. What a fitting punishment that she be completely isolated and alone while everyone hates her, exactly what she did to Laura. Nope, Laura’s ghost comes up and stages her suicide so we get a final jump scare. This was disappointing, and I think it undercuts what was potentially a great ending. I was more disappointed by the ending than I was by what I felt was not the greatest use of the overall concept. My view of the entire movie might have been elevated had they leaned into just leaving Blaire alone, isolated, hated, but alive to face that. Her death almost felt like an out.

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