Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hell Is Other Skypers

Like it or not, this is the age of social media and it would be darn silly for the horror genre to not embrace it (particularly considering its large teenage audience makes up a good chunk of the participants). Titling your film Unfriended and setting it in the realm of Skype may, on paper, seem a tad too trendy, but let’s face it: this is how we live now. 

Quick Plot: Blaire and her friends are high school seniors having a Skype group call that keeps being interrupted by a mystery account user. Is it just a glitch, or someone eavesdropping? More importantly, is said someone the vengeful ghost of Laura Barns, a former frenemy who killed herself after an embarrassing video was posted online?

Like The Den, Unfriended is a film that takes place entirely on a laptop. While that might sound insufferable, director Levan Gabriadze manages to make it quite compelling. The cast is game and all equip themselves well, despite the fact that they're all essentially acting straight to a webcam. They speak like what this 30something writer believes to sound like real teenagers, and for the most part, aren't making stupid decisions merely to move the plot along.

We should get one thing very straight: the characters of Unfriended are fairly awful and highly unexceptional people. That doesn't necessarily work against the film's favor. Like a lot of teen-centered horror films, the film isn't asking your heart to bleed for its eventual victims. At the same time, its sextet of Skype users isn't so over the top Heather Chandler-esque that we're actively rooting for each one's demise. It's an interesting balancing act.

That fine line has been a vital part of virtually all found footage or internet-based horror films over the last ten years or so. There are times when the awkwardness of shaky cam combined with a lack of character sympathies can be all out insufferable (see: Crowsnest). In other cases, it's simply a tool that can be built upon to make the viewer think more about the kinds of characters he or she might normally dismiss and beg for an early slasher kill (see: the highly underrated and incredibly disturbing Megan Is Missing).

Unfriended sort of finds a new place: it gives you characters that you believe are real, characters you don't like but don't necessarily need to see tortured, and plays their story out before you. Less than 80 minutes long, it wisely keeps the pace moving and mixes up its webcam storytelling when needed. While the concept of bullies getting their comeuppance isn’t new (where would 85% of ‘80s slasher be without it?), Unfriended has plenty of fresh ideas. It also manages to be genuinely unnerving in plenty of moments, making it, you know, a pretty darn effective little horror movie. 

High Points
Credit really does have to go to the young cast, who manage to give natural performances in a fairly unnatural context

Low Points
As much as it makes perfect sense for the particular story being told, it doesn’t make it any easier or more pleasant to watch a bunch of teenagers screaming at each other

Lessons Learned
Chat Roulette can be a surprisingly useful resource for potentially protecting yourself from vengeful ghosts

You know you're not the sharpest crayon in the box when your default browser is Yahoo

On the flip side, you know you're an aging blogger when you watch a teen-centered horror film and have to google a slang acronym used by the film's killer

As a bonus, aging bloggers everywhere get a free lesson: STFU apparently means "shut the f#ck up." Who knew? (aside from everyone under the age of 34)

Unfriended easily justifies its gimmick and manages to be a genuinely good, occasionally rather scary horror movie. It’s not quite at the top tier of this subgenre, but it’s definitely high up. 

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