Unfriended is a 2014 independent horror movie squarely targeted at millennials (maybe: we'll get to this below). The movie follows the Skype chat of six teenage friends as they engage in various teenager-ings and reminisce about their cyber-bullied friend's suicide. When a mysterious figure appears in their chat window, they start dying off one-by-one. Check out the trailer if you haven't seen it yet, and read our review below.
Jack: I was excited for this movie: cool Blair Witch Project-type movie with a new format. For those not in the know, Unfriended unfolds before the audience entirely by way of the protagonist Blaire’s computer screen.
Jake: I’m not sure this was supposed to be a Blair Witch Project-type movie, but there are some similarities. The low-budget and some found footage elements make it vaguely reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project. Oh and the protagonist is named Blaire? Subtle.
You know I hadn’t actually noticed that? Whoops. In any case, the only thing you ever see is what is on the screen of Blaire’s MacBook. (MacBook Pro? This is one mystery the movie never solves). This new delivery system is effective. It allows for exposition in a way that feels slightly less like exposition. Rather than clunky expositional narrative, this movie opens on Blaire conducting internet searches.
Jake: “Internet searches.” Really got your finger on the pulse there huh? But the searches do provide all the back-story I need without annoying dialog. Girl’s friend killed herself a year ago because of cyber-bullying and such. Boom. Got it.
Jack: Right. It’s efficient. Blaire is chatting with her boyfriend which then leads into the movie’s main plot: A group of teenage friends of the deceased are all having their, what feels like daily, group Skype call. They realize it’s the anniversary of the suicide and are quickly greeted by a mysterious interloper in their chat claiming to be their dead friend. Then they start dying off one by one. One weird thing is how the ghost transitions abruptly from low-level computer hacker to full-blown Poltergeist ghost. (Probably using the same technology described in the video below)
Jake: Wow. Not only is the reference itself distressing, but so is the swiftness with which you made it. On the subject of the deaths, the death scenes in Unfriended are ok. The choppy Skype-feed is pretty forgiving. All apparent suicides, they range from subtle to the liberal use of a blender. Chances are if the character introduces a prop that seems like it could deal some damage, it’s going to be the murder weapon. No game of Clue here.
Jack: As is fitting with the slasher genre, the characters aren’t particularly likable, so once they start dropping, I was struggling to find a reason to care about the deaths of numbers 4, 5, etc. I knew it was coming. Not because I’m very clever (though I am that, and handsome and modest), but because the movie makes it very clear that the deaths will come one by one.
Jake: The most amusing part of this movie to me was how it handled and presented the various slasher tropes to the audience. It’s all there. The strange mixture of character types that verges on unbelievable. The killer as a tortured soul. The drama. The sex, drugs and even a bit of rock & roll. All of this lives through a webcam and mouse cursor in Unfriended. Any human interaction and intimacy is made hollow by fact that these kids are living it out over a monitor. As the calamity unfolds and the body count rises, the absurdity of it all seems like no mistake. It feels like attempted social commentary on the measuring stick of social media.
Jack: Some deep stuff there. It is true though. I’m soon going to shit all over the whiny dialog (spoilers), and as you point out that’s gotta be in part because it feels hollow. Although you seem to be saying it’s all on purpose for the social commentary. Is it worth making your movie actively worse to get out the message that social media is bad? (Hint: no).
Jake: Let’s dissect this movie’s backstory real quick, okay? A girl kills herself after being embarrassed on social media for a video that was shared of her getting so belligerently drunk at a high school party that she shits herself and passes out behind a single-wide . . . I remember my first beer . . . Anyway, now she’s back for revenge. It’s laughably absurd. It doesn’t quite feel campy, but it seems aware of what it’s doing.
Jack: So they knew what they were doing and elected to make neither an effective serious movie nor an effective campy movie? Seems questionable. But getting back to the computer screen thing: I do chalk whatever fright this movie made me feel up to that format. You’re paying super-close attention to what’s happening so you don’t miss anything being typed, and as a consequence, you’re pretty immersed in the world the film has built. The structure lets the filmmakers control almost every variable, and that really makes you feel isolated: when they cut off a potential safety net it really feels cut off (like when 9-11 didn’t work).
Jake: One thought about immersion is to consider the medium by which the the film is consumed. I watched the movie on my laptop and it felt surprisingly natural. The computer screen format felt so at home on a computer screen that at its best moments, I almost felt like I could be on that skype call. I nearly started to watch it again on a tv after it was over as a test. Then I realized it would be too biased by my already having seen the movie to give an accurate indication so I said fuck it and chose to believe my assumption is an incontrovertible truth.
Jack: Unassailable logic. I actually watched this on my tv. And that makes sense. Like when the Skype feed would get choppy, it felt more annoying than immersive to me. Movies aren’t supposed to get choppy. I might have felt differently if I’d been watching on my computer.
Jake: Huh. I wonder if it scales. Like if it was annoying on a tv, I wonder what it was like in theaters.
Jack: I bet not great. I guess it shows a weakness of the format. And there are others. During the scenes that drag a little, I really focused way too hard on that goddamned screen. I’m left wondering dumb things like why the mouse moves in a perfectly straight line indicative of a physical mouse when It is clear that Blaire is on her bed with access only to a track-pad. Thoughts like that really ruin the immersion. Also the format provides no reprieve from irritating dialog. When the teens are 8 minutes deep yelling about cheating on and with one-another, there’s simply no escape.
Jake: Right?! Also I thought the weird, static-like noise that accompanied some of the messages from the killer (what’s her goddamned name?) were overdone. The movie didn’t need to beat the fact that the departed was communicating with the living into the ground quite so much. Broke the shit out of my immersion.
Jack: First off it’s Laura Barnes. She killed herself man. It was a tragedy. And yeah, good call. Also, did the screen name of the killer mean anything? “Billie”something right? Billie227 I think. That went right over my head.
Jake: Yeah, Billie227. That’s right. I don’t know either. It felt like it was going to be some big reveal, but not so much. Let’s see . . . the main character’s name is Blaire Lily. You can pick and choose letters from that to make Billie. And then 227 . . .
Jack: I was gonna guess it was a reference to noted 80’s NBC television show 227 which once featured Run DMC as a guest star.
Jake: For fuck’s sake. Well if Billie227 did mean something, the movie sure didn’t make that clear.
Jack: Later, someone opines that the mysterious intruder in the chat is just a troll, and Blaire asks “A troll?! What’s a troll?!” (read that in as whiny a voice as you’ve got in your repertoire). Someone answers that a troll is someone who does disruptive things online just to get a reaction; like it’s a dang New York Times trend piece that feels compelled to pedantically explain what electronic dance music is for its aging baby-boomer audience. Alright, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it certainly wasn’t good. What audience are they talking to here? Someone who is familiar enough with Skype to understand the premise, yet too out of touch to know what a troll is, but still interested in the various love-polygons of whiny under-20’s? Is that a kind of person? I do not care to meet that person. Sounds like a real creep.
Jake: Sounds worse than a creep to me, but the movie maxed me out in terms of brain space devoted to sex predators, so let’s move on.
Jack: When the format works, it works and they control the things that make you feel safe; but when it doesn’t work they have absolutely no control over where my focus goes, and turns out it goes a lot of different lunatic directions. Maybe it’s an extra-meta commentary on human nature rather than a not-very-meta one on social media.
What did you think of the end? I really hated the end. Lazy jump scare with a cut to black.
Jake: Awful - felt like the re-release of Paranormal Activity (which we will get to later)
For 1, think of what Ernie K-Doe thinks of his mother in law:
For 10, think of Garfield's rating for lasagna on non-mondays:
Jack: 3 - Really not much going on here.
Jake: 5 - From me it gets props simply because it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume people are being murdered by a ghost for making poop jokes. Funny thought.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION
Jack: 5 - When everything’s clicking and the movie’s at its peak, I was in.
Jake: 5 - See it on a computer.
Jack: 4 - called my dog in from the other room so I wouldn't be alone in the dark at one point.
Jake: 3 - this movie wasn’t that scary: it was too absurd to be taken seriously, even though it tried.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF)
Jack: 7 - recognized and used its limitations.
Jake: 6 - I liked the use of some of the things we all run into with internet connectivity as a tool, but sometimes got overzealous.
Jack: 3 - Not sure I'd recommend it.
Jake: 4.75 - because that’s what math tells me. Jack’s got some issues...