Review: Unfriended

A group of online chat room friends find themselves haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force using the account of their dead friend.

It would be easy to dismiss ‘Unfriended’ outright as something of a gimmick. Unfolding entirely within the confines of a laptop screen documenting a video chat going on between a group of high-school friends, what sounds like a recipe for tame multiplex jump-scare fare actually has a little more to it than that, and turns out to be a surprisingly strong tech-horror that – just about – succeeds in playing by the restrictive rules it sets for itself.

There’s a cyberbullying element that figures prominently in ‘Unfriended”s exposition – namely that a friend of the group named Laura killed herself the year before the events of the film, following an embarrassing video of her being uploaded to YouTube. This is touched on early on in the film, then the “group chat” framework is quickly established. Unlike other films with casts of teenage protagonists (not looking at anyone in particular, ‘THE GALLOWS’), ‘Unfriended’ recognises that “teen-aged” and “grotesquely unlikable” are not the same thing, and the idle chatter between this cast of flawed but mostly inoffensive friends is enjoyable enough as a result. You’ll from your first impressions, but the film will have its fun toying with your allegiances more than a few times before the credits roll.

At its worst,’Unfriended strains to retain fluidity amidst its steadfast commitment to its very limited borders. Being terrorized by an unknown entity occupying the messenger account of your dead friend is a suitably unnerving premise for a tech-savvy horror, but unless the action is relentlessly compelling, watching the plot unfold via opening and closing browser windows and cycling through toolbars can begin to wear a little thin. That being said, an impressive variety of stylish scares and a suitably twisty story arc stops this from ever becoming too much of an issue, and while it gets a little silly in its closing third, it’s a film that strives to play by its own rules, and mostly hits the spot.

A better commentary on bullying and its effects than the likes of ‘Some Kind of Hate’, and a more impressive spin on the kind of “laptop horror” than we encountered in Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘Open Windows’, ‘Unfriended’ is unlikely to top anyone’s end-of-year list, but there’s little denying that there’s a lot of fun to be had with it. Following its surprise monster take at the box office, a sequel is due next year, and if it manages to move with the times and keep the scares up, there’s real franchise potential here. An unexpected success.

A group of friends meet up online only to find an uninvited guest on their Skype call. What seemed just odd at first soon turns into something far more menacing. Unfriended is a cautionary tale about the way we behave online towards not just strangers but our friends and the damage that can be caused through social media embarrassment. But the question really is was the vehicle for the delivery of this message actually any good. Well, not really.

This is one of the new entries into the digital found footage genre, trying to do something new and original. Unfortunately this simply follows in the path of recent attempts such as The Den, VHS and Open Windows. Only it’s not as well thought out as The Den which grounds itself in reality making it all the more terrifying, as creepy as the webcam segment of VHS or as tongue in cheek and out there as Open Windows. Unfriended just falls into the well-intentioned/poorly executed cracks.

The idea is quite decent but the writers didn’t expand it enough to hold a feature film length and the film suffered because of this. Lots of arguments ensued between the group of friends to fill the time, that if you really believed your life was in danger would never have occurred. The motivation of the characters to fail to respond to increasingly dangerous threats (that were being followed through so there was no doubt as to their authenticity) was weak at best, annoying at worst.

The direction also let this film down. For the most part it was just static shots of the people on the Skype call and shots of the main character’s computer when she would move between programs. So far so easy. However when asked to actually create the scares which required some more thoughtful direction this task was met with unimaginative follow through. As with a lot of found footage films, the inability to cut between cameras is met with jerky movements, crackling screens and camera cut outs. This is one of my biggest bug bears with the genre. If you can’t show what you need to then don’t film it in a style that prevents you from doing this. Found footage should be used to serve the story and the film and not actually hinder what you want to do.

On the plus side the performances were actually pretty good and the mostly unknown cast did really well with what they had. It was this which kept me from being completely bored during the film. This actually enhanced some of the tension build ups that wasn’t being delivered through the direction but unfortunately the pay offs weren’t there and the death scenes became repetitive.

But I’ve saved the biggest issue Unfriended has until last. The whole story mechanism creates unlikable characters with few redeeming qualities. They only show remorse when faced with punishment for their actions. So this gives us the fatal flaw for a horror film. Not caring. Either way. It really didn’t matter to me if their character made it through the ordeal or not. So this left me ultimately disengaged with the film.

I can see this working relatively well with the audience it seems to be intended for which appears to be teenagers. But I think even they will find it a bit throwaway. Had this film been my friend on Facebook before I saw it then afterwards it certainly would be….Unfriended.

I never understood how UNFRIENDED became such a divisive movie but I am firmly in the camp of those who enjoyed it. For me it is about what you see this movie as being about, if you are wanting an out-and-out horror then you are not going to get it here bar a couple of gruesome scenes but if you want a thriller about the effects and consequences of cyber bullying then this movie is one for you.

Starting with the death of a bullied school girl, the rest of the movie is set around a video chat session between a group of friends who on the surface all seem nice and genuine people but as the ghost of the murdered girl returns via a video chat session and later reactivation of her Facebook page then a lot of truths start to come out and one by one they are bumped off in a variety of ways.

Is it worth seeing? I would say yes but don’t expect to see this and be frightened, it is one that crawls beneath your skin and sits there as things become more and more unexplained but more truths are revealed. What this movie felt like was that it could almost be a Japanese film done as a remake as that is what it felt like to me. The return of a vengeful spirit of a girl who killed herself after a video was made of her and put online then comes back to seek revenge. There is that element of a Japanese horror movie that tinges this film so if that is the sort of thing you like then you may find UNFRIENDED a good watch.

In terms of it’s message then it screams out that cyber bullying isn’t clever or cool and it will have consequences as you will discover by watching this movie. It is a film I would be happy to watch again, it is something a little different to the usual releases and yes the budget limitations mean that most of the film is just split between friends video chatting. But it works and it works well, it doesn’t set new highs in the horror genre but in a year where releases have been poor generally this is one of the better movies out there.

Unfriended is out on DVD & Blu Ray on 7th September 2015





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