Friday, 8 May 2015

Unfriended


On the anniversary of the suicide of Laura Barns, one of their former classmates, five friends create a group Skype call for them to hang out for the evening while all their parents are out. Joining them, however, is an anonymous sixth account, who they cannot seem to remove from their call. They disconnect the call repeatedly, but the anonymous account continues to plague them with its presence. They soon seem content to just ignore the account and continue with their evening, until the anonymous user reveals their account information, under the name of Laura Barns.

On paper, Unfriended shouldn't work. A feature length horror film told entirely through social media on the laptop screen of a teenager? The concept alone sounds tiring and monotonous. Whilst many are labeling this a brand new style of film-making, viewers of the US sitcom Modern Family will be familiar to this, thanks to the stellar season six episode Connection Lost, which aired earlier this year. This episode used the same format, but for comedic purposes. The writers used the contrast of human interaction on FaceTime against private google searches, creating an episode that was as innovative as it was hilarious. Coming off of that, Unfriended should use this premise to be both innovative and terrifying. Does it manage? Well, it's by far and away one of the most intricate and fleshed out horrors of the decade, but it just isn't scary.

What it does have, though, is an eye for detail. Everything about this little world feels fleshed out, right from the offset. The film begins by showing us the video of Laura Barns' suicide, and from then on, relents to slow down the pace. Unfriended is, after all, a mere 83 minutes in length, and therefore doesn't have time for a lot of explanatory exposition or build up. Something feels off right from the beginning, and this feeling doesn't give up until the credits roll. It's also beneficial that, quite surprisingly, Unfriended is well performed throughout. Only six people offer dialogue throughout the film, and all six deliver. When Unfriended racks the tension up to its absolute peak, the cast delivers entirely, which is rather refreshing in a teen-led horror film of the modern day.

To the credit of the writers and director, Unfriended uses its formula sublimely. The film is horrifically intense from beginning to end, to the point where my eyes kept watering due to a lack of blinking. It may never be truly scary, and fails to leave any lasting impression, but in the moment it's quite an experience. The film even finds time for some dark humour within its concept; as the central character is revealed to have lied about certain things, the ghost uses Spotify to play a song entitled "How You Lie Lie Lie" through her laptop. That's another great thing about Unfriended, it isn't afraid to have fun. So many horror films take themselves too seriously these days, people seem to forgot horror films can, and arguably should, be fun. Unfriended never forgets this.

What it does forget, though, is how to be scary. It's tense throughout, nicely performed and good fun, but the almost total lack of scares is crushingly disappointing. This concept is new to cinema, and it feels underwhelming that it winds up failing on the one aspect a horror film needs in order to be successful. Whilst it is good fun, too, Unfriended occasionally comes across as weird; one particular character is forced by the ghost to commit suicide by shoving her hair straighteners down her own throat. It's all well and good to be fun, but the combination of horror and silliness has a fine line, and Unfriended crosses that line a few too many times. The script is far from perfect, too. Whilst the actors are all solid and give their best, a lot of time is wasted to them simply shouting over each other. Had more effort been taken with the film's dialogue, I can't help but feel we could've cared more about these characters and wound up with something actually frightening. As it is, Unfriended is about as scary as a kitten.

This film is, unfortunately, a rather mixed bag. It has a lot working for it, but falls totally and utterly flat on the main aspect of a horror film. There are times when Unfriended is very good. More than that, there are moments where it is excellent. A brief sequence in the middle act involving two characters having a note printed by the ghost but refusing to share the contents is brilliantly executed, and the culmination of this scene rivals the intensity of some of the horror genre's very best efforts. But it never takes it further; Unfriended is content to rely almost entirely on keeping you on edge, only to then stop dead without even trying to push you over it. You won't jump, you won't scream and, most annoyingly, you won't have anything to be scared of when you go home afterwards. It's an interesting film for a number of reasons, and I can easily see it gaining a small cult following, but when you compare the level of horror in this to other recent offerings such as It Follows or The Babadook, it's hard for Unfriended breathe.

To Summarise: Despite its strong cast, tense atmosphere and interesting narrative formula, Unfriended feels more like a missed opportunity, failing to deliver on the horror genre's one real promise.


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