I’ve had some less than flattering things to say about the found footage gimmick in recent years, calling it things like "the worst of today’s low budget Hollywood filmmaking," "an excuse to be lazy" and "a thing that shouldn’t exist anymore." So let’s all take a moment and marvel at the fact that in the new techno-horror flick "Unfriended," the found footage-esque visual gimmick not only works, but it’s the best part of the movie. The result isn’t much for scares, but it is scarily entertaining – even intentionally so.
Playing as a kind of high-tech "I Know What You Did Last Summer" riff for those rascally Vine-making millennials, "Unfriended" follows virginal high school couple Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Skyping to exchange their vows to save themselves for prom as well as some awkward flirty foreplay involving weirdly intense knife-wielding threats. Young love, amirite?
Eventually, their gaggle of friends – the preppy dude, the dorky comic relief, the kinda slutty one and the nagging buzzkill – join in on the call, as well as an anonymous person with the unassuming screen name billie227. The gang figures their mystery visitor must be a glitch, but after some intimidating messages, it soon reveals itself to be the spirit of a former classmate, driven to kill herself a year ago after a particularly brutal bout of cyber-bullying. And it hasn’t returned to sign yearbooks. No, the pissed-off digi-ghost is hunting down the person who posted the cruel video that pushed her to suicide – as well as those who participated in its popularity – and punishing them one by one with the ultimate Spinning Pinwheel of Death.
The much-ballyhooed gimmick comes in the delivery, as the chaos of "Unfriended" unfolds exclusively on Blaire’s computer screen. It’s not the first time the approach has been tried – Joe Swanberg’s short from the 2012 horror anthology "V/H/S" was also told via video chat – but director Levan Gabriadze’s take is certainly the most clever, complex and committed, starting right off the bat with glitchy buffering during the opening Universal logo.
From there, Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves keep up the authentic look of the Skype-centered thriller while finding new ways to make it fun and interesting. The movie constantly hops between multiple windows – from Skype to message screens to Facebook to iTunes to Google to the fuzzy full-frontal horrors of Chatroulette – keeping the visuals and the rules fresh, while also giving the impression of different "locations" despite being stuck in the perspective of a single person’s computer screen.
With all of those programs popping up and interrupting one another, plus the expected loud clutter of six panicked teens on a haunted Skype call, "Unfriended" can be an ADD movie-watching experience – in the most engaging way (though older audiences might get a panic attack from it all).
Greaves and Gabriadze utilize the entire screen, sending the viewer’s eye scouring the bottom of the screen for intimidating Skype messages from billie227 and the top right corner for Facebook updates – each one arriving with its particular alert ding. Plus, the multiple, often overlapping windows gives Greaves and Gabriadze clever and quick new ways to deliver the usual horror exposition. The audience is really just watching people type – never the most scintillating cinematic activity – and bloodily scream in a screen within a computer screen … within the movie screen, but the experience is still surprisingly involving from beginning to end.
Well, almost; the ending is kind of terrible. Actually, "Unfriended" has a great ending … and then proceeds to go on for another 15 seconds of so, abandoning the brilliantly executed gimmick for a cheap jump scare that belongs in a dumber, hackier movie.
Unfortunately, the other scares in "Unfriended" don’t register much better. As great as Greaves and Gabriadze work with the gimmick, it’s hard to make typing – no matter how ominous – actually scary. The thrills tend to top off at mildly eerie – a loading symbol commonly serves as its main source of tension – but the inherent type-heavy and screen within a screen within a screen nature of the movie keeps the horror at a safe, comfortable distance. Plus, there are only so many ways to deliver a good jolt within the restrictive constraints of a static-y Skype video window.
So how can I recommend a horror movie that is never particularly scary? Pure creative chutzpah, for one. And what "Unfriended" lacks in scares, it makes up for in pure entertainment value. The movie almost plays more like a dark comedy, making a mockery of the characters shrill selfishness and poking fun at Internet communication – all intentionally so. It’s a film where a person Facebook chats with a ghost – complete with otherworldly seen time stamps – and a ghost responds with memes from the grave ... so no, it’s not taking itself seriously.
Long before the ghost gets around stabbing kids, the bratty youths instantly take to stabbing one another in the back as soon as tensions get high and lives are at risk. The ghoul constantly finds new mind games to set its former tormentors against one another, including a hilarious game of Never Have I Ever where the ghost just gets to kick its feet up and watch the crew spitefully and selfishly pick at each other’s lies, scabs and deep secrets. It’s almost as though, even with all the interconnectivity today's Internet culture provides, no one is actually connected. But that’s probably as deep a thought necessary from a movie with ghost memes.
For the most part, these are outstandingly awful people, and when it comes time to dispense justice, Greaves and Gabriadze do so with giggle-inducingly swift brutality. Once again, it's not scary, but there's still something deviously satisfying about watching the ghost tighten its screws and our callous youngsters lose theirs.
So no, "Unfriended" isn’t all that much of a horror film. But as a kind of fresh, techno-tinged burst of horror comedy, it’s [enter smiley emoji] [enter thumbs up emoji].
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.