Hollywood producers are constantly trying to seek out horror movies that will cost close to nothing to make, but absolutely make insane amounts of money. We’ve seen this most egregiously with one of the most popular horror genres to ever — the concept of the “found footage” movie. 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was the first real commercial success story to come out of a found footage style horror flick (and is one of my all-time favorite horror movies). But it wasn’t until 2009’s Paranormal Activity that many production companies decided to follow suit and start production on their own found footage horror movies. These movies are typically quite easy to make (at least in comparison to movies shot with regular film cameras), require small budgets, and are easily marketed to the teenage markets. Though they’re usually of disconcerting quality, they typically become successful.
Unfriended is the latest venture into the already stale genre of found footage horror movies. It’s set apart from the rest, though, as it actually boasts an interesting concept; the entirety of the movie is seen from the main character’s Macbook screen in real time as she surfs Facebook, plays music on Spotify, and Skypes her friends (product placement galore!). Unfortunately, however, this concept is executed without craft and ends up becoming little more than just a gimmick.
Laura Barns was a popular teenage girl all before an unflattering video of her surfaced on YouTube, leading to her committing suicide due to incessant bullying that came with it. Blaire is another popular teenage girl who used to be childhood friends with Laura, and just so happens to be our main character in Unfriended. Since the movie is exclusively seen through capturing Blaire’s computer screen, we witness her first watching the video of Laura committing suicide (a bystander caught her on camera as she committed suicide in a public park through use of a gun), then we see a snippet of the video that lead to Laura’s suicide, all before Blaire is interrupted with a Skype video call from her boyfriend, Mitch.
This call ends up in Skype sex territory as Blaire and Mitch continually disrobe until they are both interrupted by being forced into another Skype video call with their three friends: Adam, Ken, and Jess. Also along for the call is a mysterious account simply named billie227. This account has no profile information, nor does it have a camera or microphone, and after multiple attempts at kicking billie227 out of the call, the group of friends ends up brushing it off as just being some sort of glitch.
Blaire begins to message Mitch through a Skype chat just between the two of them about how she feels uneasy about the billie227 account. As she does this, she is messaged on Facebook by Laura Barns’ account (which I noticed only had 30 friends, and you’re telling me that this attractive, popular girl only had 30 friends on Facebook? C’mon, movie). “Laura” reveals that she will kill Blaire and all of her friends if they don’t stay on the Skype call and cooperate.
I didn’t find this to be a bad premise, actually. I do think that a good movie could have come out of the idea, but the filmmakers continuously ruin the interesting premise by trying to force jump scares (which never caused a response from me outside of a multitude of sighs), making almost every character totally stereotypical, unlikable, and ever so annoying, and being dumbfoundingly predictable throughout the thankfully brisk 83 minute runtime.
In a cast of six teenagers (we quickly get introduced to another friend, Val), it’s distressing that only one of the characters, Ken, is somewhat likable. As we move forward in the movie, we begin to see that all of the characters are awful people and you actually cannot wait for them to be dispatched in (hopefully) gruesome ways. It’s disappointing, however, that though the deaths can be somewhat gruesome in theory, they are never satisfying thanks to the use of anything-but-special special effects and increasingly annoying webcam buffering and glitch effects that obstruct your view when characters are killed.
In the climax of the film, the group is forced to play a game of Never Have I Ever, a game in which you must fess up if you are associated with the statement that Laura comes up with. For example, “Never have I ever spread a rumor about Blaire having an eating disorder” is the first statement Laura makes. Everyone holds up five fingers and for each statement they’re associated with, they must put down another finger until whoever has no fingers left up is killed by Laura. Every character has done something exceptionally awful behind the back of one of their “friends,” and while this makes for a semi-entertaining climax as the group of friends being to turn on each other, it simultaneously makes you hate each character more and more as you find out all of the awful things that they’ve done.
The first hour before the climax is, however, for the most part, an absolute bore. We watch Blaire as she clicks through web pages (we see the MTV “Teen Wolf” website in one tab, and Instagram in another (EVEN MORE PRODUCT PLACEMENT)) and chat with Mitch and Laura through multiple chat rooms, while she frantically types and deletes messages only to retype basically the same message she had already typed over and over again before she can send out just the right message. And I mean, sure, we’ve all done this, but that doesn’t make for compelling movie material.
I like to think that writer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze set out to make exactly the movie that they ended up with. That is, a movie made on a tiny budget with a simple plot specially made for the current generation of teenagers who can’t seem to get off of their computers and phones, and I assume that many teenagers who go to see this will be entertained and actually really like Unfriended (it definitely seemed that way with the how the mostly teenager crowd responded to the movie when I saw it). And just to touch on the message of the movie, which is clear: don’t cyberbully, it’s simply a horrible thing to do and it will come back to bite you. It’s an easy message that has been ingrained in everyone’s heads for years now, and I don’t think anyone needed this movie to tell them that cyberbullying is bad.
Though I was somewhat entertained when I saw Unfriended (perhaps less because of the movie itself and more thanks to the crowd I saw it with), I have a very hard time recommending this movie to anyone. I also can’t say that I’m very excited for the eventual influx of movies trying to recreate what Unfriended has accomplished (I will give it props for being sort of shot in a single take in real time with minimal reshoots), but if some filmmaker out there can take the idea of Unfriended and actually make a decent movie out of it, then you’ll know I’ll be there to see it.
— Michael Lane, Film Blogger