One fateful night a group of self involved annoying teenagers discover that more than just the NSA is listening in on their online communications. Unless NSA stands for.. nighttime… spirit… apparition! Yeah! I really should have planned that one out ahead of time…
Unfriended takes your run of the mill vengeful ghost story and modernizes it. Instead of haunting creaky old mansions and dark corners this spirit suffers from digital damnation and stalks her victims on Skype, Facebook, and YouTube. The entire film plays out on a computer screen jumping from webcams to google searches. 2014 must have been the year for thrillers that take place on a computer screen; the same year saw the release of Open Windows, an Elijah Wood movie that one ups this one by managing to change locations rather than stay in only a few rooms.
In Unfriended we are presented with a group of young actors that spend most of the movie screaming a lot. The caveat of the movie taking place solely in webcams means actors don’t have the help of lighting or cinematography to sell the terror. This group is serviceable but not quite up to the challenge the setup presents. They get the job done but the constantly overlapping cracking screaming can grate after a bit. (I suspect this is what many people think about The Blair Witch Project, but I like that movie, go fig.) With the actors not winning me over I’m just waiting for them get dead. The kills escalate well, each one being more shocking that the last, with final stinger of the movie feeling like a culmination we’ve been waiting for. As with most PG-13 horror movies gore hounds need not apply.
So how well does the computer interface gimmick jazz up what is otherwise an average flick? Off the bat I notice something unique. Mouse pointer acting! The pointer lazily floats across the screen as friends chat and darts back and forth and spins in frustrated circles when the spirit is threatening to kill someone. Watching text be typed, erased, and reworded before being sent gives insight into the Final Girl’s thoughts. Buttons that should be on the screen simply aren’t there. The pop ups! OH GOD THE POP UPS! The desperation of the characters is readily apparent when they resort to, of all things, Chatroulette to save them. As a child of the digital age who welcomes our Google overlords I related to all of these quirks. I suspect they wouldn’t do anything for someone who may be less computer or social network literate though. And I still found myself missing traditional camera work.
Ultimately Unfriended is a serviceable horror flick with a fun twist that doesn’t totally work but I’m glad it’s a thing that exists. I am squarely in the cross section of people who are really into tech and really into horror movies though. If you fall outside of that ven diagram this movie will be pretty forgettable.
Quality of the movie aside it does bring up an important issue: cyber bullying. The ghost is angry because she was driven to suicide when a mortifying video of her was posted online and everyone dog piled on top her saying hateful things and suggesting that she should, well, kill herself. She blames everyone involved including the person behind the camera, the one who posted it online, and everyone that sent her horrible messages. And rightfully so. The victims themselves feel uneasy even before the strangeness starts. The police are called over threats made against them over Skype. They don’t play it off as “just a joke” even though that’s what they say about how they treated the spirit.
It’s accepted as fact in this movie that what one posts on the Internet can affect people in very real, very negative ways. Too often I see people online attack others with a mountain of vitriol that would shock most people if it were said out loud in conversation. Some of these people really are just assholes. But many of them shrink when faced with their own words. They think words on a screen don’t amount to much.
It’s good to see this mainstream movie acknowledge, however tangentially, that online harassment is still harassment in every sense of the word. There is a real person on the other end of that Internet connection, a person who will be affected by what is sent to them. Basically, don’t type anything you wouldn’t say to someone if they were standing right next to you because in this connected age they effectively are.
And furthermore…oh my. I’m sorry, when did this soapbox get under me?
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Plan 9 from Outer Space – In honor of the potential existence of Planet 9. (Big ups to you Pluto, never forget.) Ed Wood got a reputation for making awful movies on a shoestring budget for a reason. This movie about aliens resurrecting the dead is not even remotely good by any stretch of the imagination, but I sure got a kick out of seeing that sometimes the stereotype of ridiculous effects and stilted acting in 50’s sci-fi movies is true.
Jack & Diane – The two titular young women slowly fall for one another. One also might be prone to turning into a grotesque rage monster…maybe? A movie about teens coming to terms with sexuality, there are some very strange choices that I never can distinguish between literal truth or just visual metaphor. Does one character REALLY have a twin sister that does porn? Is someone actually going full werewolf when they get sexually aroused or frustrated? The imagery is never clear, nor is the dialog. Literally, the dialog is sometimes overpowered by background noise. I’m sure the filmmakers had a message in mind but it gets lost in a poor delivery.
The Hangover III – While the first movie did a fair job of stunning me with its random absurdity and introducing me to Zach Galifianakis this third (and final?) installment is running on fumes. The three leads have their chemistry down pat and Ken Jeong gets some laughs as a ridiculous villain but there is just nothing left in these writers and director. The first one can be held up as an example of the comedy of the time. Its sequels are just pale imitations.
San Andreas – What’s better than watching major American cities get destroyed real good? Watching the ever charismatic Dwayne Johnson save his family at the same time! Family troubles? Check. Characters spread out across the country that will meet up eventually? Check. Doom saying scientist that looks into the camera and says “God help us all?” Check. Cowardly slimeball that gets super dead? Check. This movie hits every disaster cliche and keeps right on moving along without a care in the world. It’s kinda fun to see all the destruction and The Rock IS good at playing the hero but this movie does absolutely nothing interesting. It’s fluff, but as far as fluff goes it’s not bad.