One of the biggest surprises this particular blogger has had in a long time, the recent horror film Unfriended proved to be a surprisingly rewarding watch. Unlike another hyped modern horror flick It Follows, I didn’t see the fact that I’d respond so strongly to this one coming from a mile away. Rather, I went in not quite knowing what to expect and then came out thoroughly impressed. I went from laughing at trailer when it first premiered to being completely engaged by the creative use of the ‘computer screen only’ angle, as well as some subversive commentary on current generations’ over-reliance on modern technology as the primary tool of communication. With that in mind, Unfriendedjust might be the first truly “21st century” American horror film, in that it uses the modern technologies to its furthest creative potential in a way that makes it completely inseparable from the storytelling at its core. What might seem like a simple gimmick on the surface instead elevates the film and offers a hefty amount of deceptively intelligent commentary about how cyber-bullying only works if you cooperate with it, amidst all the onscreen screaming, chaos, and Skype product placement.
Originally intended to be aired on MTV in the summer of 2014, studio heads saw the potential for reaching a wider audience and decided to give it the big screen treatment, along with a rather inventive marketing campaign in the weeks leading up to its nationwide theatrical premiere. Transparent corporate greed aside, having Unfriendedplay on the big screen proved to be an effective move, even though the notion of a computer screen-only feature being projected onto a normal theatrical screen isn’t terribly cinematic sounding, it works out surprisingly well due to the strengths of the storytelling and consistent tone of the film.
Among the film’s strongest assets is its handling of the (limited) cast of characters, in particular the lead – played by Shelley Henning – whose computer the film’s POV is from, and who is also given quite a few moments of genuine humanity and psychological insight not afforded to her circle of friends. While not a particularly complicated or nuanced character, it’s an immediately sympathetic role that recalls the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis in the original Halloween. And even though the supporting players don’t fare as strongly, and really just play to established horror character types, they still get fleshed out a fair bit and each one registers as an enjoyable presence, as we await their inevitable comeuppance. Its these solid characterizations which offer telling insights and a respectful understanding of this particular generation’s values and norms, which adds to the overall impact of the proceedings.
Stylistically, Unfriended is also a resounding success. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the film is the way it’s presented entirely from the perspective of one person’s computer screen, playing the scenario out in real time – and as mentioned beforehand, it’s executed exceedingly well. Its the same sort of minimalism and intentional limitations that’s benefited the horror genre for decades, and it keeps the fear and tension building as the characters all sit around in a confined setting while the situation escalates further and further. Also worth mentioning are some self aware moments of gallows humor and a truly startling final image to seal the deal.
And therein lays the subversive intelligence of Unfriended. It’s a film that plays to the audience that understands these characters and their mindset, while still managing the curve-ball a mannered deconstruction of the fake friendships and two faced habits of its very own audience. Not particularly subtle to be sure, but A for effort.