Since The Blair Witch Project bored us all to tears and/or gave us motion sickness, there have been hundreds of “found footage” horror flicks, most of them unwatchable. Unfriended, at least, offers a slight twist on the formula: Instead of constructing the movie around camera footage of some idiots walking around in the woods, the story plays out during a Skype session between some idiots in their bedrooms at home. I went to see it thinking there was at least a chance there’d be some clever use of technology as a means of storytelling.
Not so much. Once you know the basic premise, you can guess how the story plays out: background is established through Youtube videos and Facebook timelines, private conversations take place via instant messenger, and what little glimpse we get into the main character’s internal monologue plays out through website visits, Google searches, and possibly music selections, though the last one only really tells the audience that she listens to incredibly bland music. There are a couple of instances where computer glitches are used for spooky effect, but otherwise Chrome tab product placement is about as clever as the filmmakers get with the “it all happens on the desktop” premise.
The story is equally predictable. As you probably know from the previews, a mutual friend of the characters, Laura Barnes, committed suicide a year ago and now her ghost has come back to haunt them online. It’s pretty quickly revealed that the suicide was the result of online shaming. Since I had just finished Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the day before, this kind of piqued my interest, but the film doesn’t really supply any interesting commentary or subtext (this is very much a “just text” kind of movie). Anyway, Ghost Laura is back for internet-driven revenge.
Since Laura took herself out after after her darkest secret (that she got drunk and shit herself) was revealed online, she’s getting her revenge by revealing the other characters’ darkest secrets to one another. Which brings us to another problem with the movie: all the secrets are incredibly boring, high-school gossip kind of secrets, in part because the characters are so boring and two-dimensional. The characters are so shallow that only one of them (the geek) is individuated enough to count as a stock teen movie archetype. The others are only slightly more distinct than “high school girls #1-3” and “high school boys #1-2.” The format and the decision to tell the story through one desktop (presumably to keep the audience from getting confused about who’s the current POV character) provides some excuse, but it’s a weak one since the Skype conceit allowed them to put actors on the screen. If the movie took place 15 years ago and we only saw the character’s ICQ messages, the flat characters would be a lot more forgivable. This is just weak writing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not one of those horror movies where creative or spooky carnage makes up for other failures. Apparently, Ghost Laura kills people either by possessing or mind-controlling them into offing themselves with whatever’s lying around, and most of the death scenes use the “you can only see what the webcam can see” premise to cover for the lack of budget and creativity. There are no spooky ghost effects, no really creative murder weapons, and no Final Destination bus-style “holy shit” moments.
Overall, it’s like the filmmakers came up with the hook and then half-assed everything else. The plot is predictable, but that’s not the problem. The premise basically allows for “actual ghost killing people” or “revenge hoax,” and neither would have been unexpected enough to count as a twist. The real problem is that they they told a predictable story badly. The idea of telling a story via computer screen is interesting in theory, but the novelty wears off very quickly. Once that happens, the only thing to hold your interest in is the ever-lessening hope that the filmmakers have another clever idea up their sleeve. They don’t.