APRIL 18, 2015
I often say that I don't dismiss any horror movie for a lack of scares, because I don't frighten easily and thus it wouldn't be fair (it'd be like David Ortiz criticizing little leaguers for failing to strike him out), but I have to make an exception for Unfriended, because it simply has NO SCARES. I don't mean effective ones, I mean none at all - good, bad, earned, fake... however you want to categorize a "boo", it's safe to assume this movie doesn't have enough of them. There's one kinda effective moment where it seems like the Skype image of one girl is frozen until they see her phone rattling to her (meaning SHE is frozen, not the image), but it's not well executed. And then there's a bit where the ghost suddenly loads an ironic song on Spotify, but it's played more for laughs than a fright moment; even in the annals of "loud noise = scare!" it's hardly a great example.
You might notice I'm listing things you've heard of: Skype, Spotify, etc. What the movie DOES do well, and why it works at all, is that it doesn't make up a bunch of fake apps that were clearly inspired by ones you know of - it just uses the real one. No "Friendspace" or "Twiddle-Book" or whatever the hell, our heroine Blaire goes to the same sites and uses all the same programs you yourself have on your computer (including VLC, which seems to be a bit advanced for someone who doesn't know how to use keyboard shortcuts), which is a huge relief as I've never fully understood why people go to the trouble of inventing a fake search engine in a movie just to look up things like "Nightmares" or "Telekinesis" (it makes a bit more sense when they're looking for fictional people, in order to control the search matches). This grounds the movie into our reality, rather than distracting us with cheesy simulacrums of the world's leading programs.
And, for better or (often) worse, the filmmakers accurately reflect what it would be like to be in a Skype conference call with six teenagers. They talk over each other, they laugh at two others getting into a row, and Blaire, whose laptop screen is what we see for the entire movie, often minimizes the program to play songs on Spotify, iChat with her boyfriend, look at Facebook, etc, while the conversation(s) continue in the background. Sure, if you want to get really anal you can spot some fakery in the background, such as the curiously high numbers for bland (fake?) Youtube videos alongside the one that serves the plot (12 million views for a 25 second video titled "Lake Tahoe vacation"?) or the fact that her iChat log keeps disappearing every time she clicks back to it, but where it matters, it's accurate and believable.
It's also fun to see things like "greyed out contextual menu options" become part of the plot. If you were unaware, the film is about the supposed ghost of a girl who killed herself joining on a group Skype chat and demanding that whoever posted an embarrassing video of her (which led to the suicide) own up to what they did, killing someone every now and then until the guilty party outs themselves. So naturally the solution would be to disconnect them, but the ghost is apparently in the machine, and so attempts are futile - the option to do anything that you'd think to do has either been greyed out or disappeared entirely. Again, this is where the film's realism helps matters greatly, as our familiarity with the programs lets us instantly know that something is amiss. When the ghost sends Blaire an email for her eyes only and one of the others demands to see it, it's fun to see that Gmail's "forward" option - which we all know where it should be - has been wiped out. This wouldn't work with "Fast Email 2000" or whatever nonsense the filmmakers would usually come up with, making it a far more effective moment.
The other thing that makes it feel more genuine is Blaire's legit activity when typing. We see her write things with the occasional typo, some she corrects and others she leaves. We see her pause, hovering over the send button as she reconsiders what to say, many times rewriting it before finally being satisfied. This actually offers us information that the other characters never learn; when the dead girl's history is asked about, Blaire writes several drafts of the reply, and we can piece together what appears to have left her messed up (an uncle did something) before she finally settles on something noncommittal. We're so used to seeing the absolute fakest representation of online communication in movies (i.e. people saying every word they type) that it actually feels somewhat genius to just show it like it actually is.
BUT WHY CAN'T IT BE SCARY? The ghost has no physical presence to speak of (unless you count the innocuous Skype logo - I hope a sequel can find the protagonists being terrorized by the Twitter egg), and all of the kills are mostly off-screen (the most explicit is the one in the trailer - the kid shoving his hand into a blender). And it takes forever to know what exactly the video showed that made her a target; revenge movies of this sort (it's basically Terror Train or Slaughter High or any other "victim of prank returns to exact revenge" horror) tend to work better when the prank kicks the movie off, not when we gradually learn what it is (and it's kind of goofy; the ads tried to suggest it was some sort of sexual act but it's actually... well, you'll see). So it's hard to really sympathize with the ghost as we're not even sure what they did until after she's already killed a few of them - it'd be nice to have that "well they deserved it!" feeling for a while. I know cyber-bullying is a horrible thing, but since they're kind of making light of the seriousness of it by having a ghost exact revenge (as opposed to a tech-savvy parent or sibling of the deceased), it's easier to judge it along the lines of its horror brethren as opposed to "modern film tackles a growing issue".
The filmmakers also go way overboard with the glitches. Even more unrealistic than the idea of a ghost using Skype is the chances of a seven way call going for over an hour (the movie plays out in real time) without anyone getting disconnected because of a poor signal or whatever, but every 7 seconds someone is victim of that weird video glitch where the shape of a person remains in one side of a screen even though they've moved to the other (I don't know what the name for it is, pixelated smearing?). Like film damage filters on faux "grindhouse" material or digital hiccups on found footage movies, the editors and directors simply forget that less is more, taking what could be used well/natural and making it ridiculous. The movie was shot in long takes (even going through the entire movie in one go, from what I understand) and is seamlessly edited together, so it's obvious that they put time and energy into the presentation, so it baffles me that they'd be so careless with glitching the footage so often (and on that note, why they wouldn't clean up some strange mistakes - like Zombie's Halloween II, they seemingly can't decide if it's a year later or two, so we see evidence of both).
So here we have a unique situation (especially for a horror film) where they get lots of "side" stuff right (and mostly good performances too, I should mention) but fail on the basics: no scares, not even that much suspense, and a vastly underutilized villain. Usually it's the other way around; we overlook the flimsy reality and lousy acting as long as the scares work and/or the villain is memorable, but here it's like the best things about it have zero to do with being a horror movie. Perhaps if they opted to switch screens, or condense the timeline and see it play out from one perspective before rewinding to see it from another (like Rec 2), the suspense factor could be improved, but with everything being told from one POV, it's not even a spoiler to say that whatever REALLY pissed her off was the fault of our heroine and thus she'll be saved for last. Padding it out with other secrets between the group (including, yet again, a love triangle involving someone sleeping with their best friend's S/O - can we give this plot point a rest in our modern horror films?) doesn't help matters either; all it does is remind us that this is a great premise that can't sustain itself for a full feature.
What say you?