I am beginning to have hope that we are in the midst of an unexpected Renaissance of horror films. At the very least, Unfriended is the third in a row I’ve viewed that I’d recommend without reservation. I am doubly happy as, from much of the early evidence, Unfriended looked awful, to the point that I almost passed on it. The trailer was grating and full of screechiness, and, come on, the film centers around teens using Facebook and Skype. Not only does that sound inauspicious in terms of scares, it just sounds painful in general. Drumming myself out of the torpor which has kept me from theaters in the past few weeks, I scanned Rotten Tomatoes for some help, and was shocked, shocked, I say, to see Unfriended labeled as fresh (and in the low 80s at that). And lo and behold, the film is quite good, very rarely annoying or stupid. In many ways, there is not much to it. The simple plot centers around a group of “friends” (chums and graduates of Knife Sharpening 101, Spring, Prof. Choderlos de Laclos all), one of whom is driven to commit suicide via online bullying by way of a shaming video. This friend, Laura, returns one night in demonic form to take her revenge on these faithless friends. The night in question happens to be – video chat night! (Which is every night in teen world, I suppose). Laura, in the guise of an anonymous, lurking video chatter cum invincible malware blackmails her former cohort into betraying each other’s secrets, shaming them (with a little help from her demonic mojo) into acts of violence against themselves, all of this wrought through and then revealed by our beloved networking technologies.
More than a few reviewers have mentioned the similarities to Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which I suppose exist. A few fewer (but more than one) have also made reference to Val Lewton’s immortal Cat People, I guess because of a seeming shared economy of means, a “less is more” mentality. Okay, whatever. In truth, I would call Unfriended more avant-garde than Lewton, and perhaps the most avant-garde “mainstream” film this year, certainly. The formal elements that make the film so interesting exist in a kind of strange opposition to the rather hackneyed narrative elements, but instead of failing to mix like proverbial oil and water, they come together in some kind of sleepy emulsification – the senescence that the film lulls you into is not boring, though, but properly nightmarish in quality. One could say the film consists of a long 80-odd minute shot; in reality, it is a faked-up screen capture of a desktop in which the “cuts” happen through the many little screens of the video chativerse. What is fascinating is that, by and large, the film captures the reality of multitasking and the phenomenological ambience of the computer screen to a T. This one long “shot” is almost completely devoid of non-diegetic sound. We hear the computer whirring away, and the crispy crunching of a Mac’s hard drive, along with sometime pop-up and notification sounds that are, sadly, in this historical moment recognizable without need of visual cue. This limited purview leads to a strangely embodied experience, which the film heightens by, at times, dampening the background chatter of the vidiots with an “I’m underwater” type of sonic submersion. There is a lot to look at, what with all the windows popping up and moving around, but it is fascinating how watching Blaire (our “eyes” and the film’s ersatz protagonist) type, erase, and then retype Facebook timeline posts, search around the Internet, or otherwise fiddle with interfaces becomes engrossing, both dreamy and more interesting than the plot itself. Likewise, within the plotting, watching the characters in their “off” moments, when they are passive and we should be looking at the character talking, for instance, becomes more fascinating and, strangely, moving, than the plot as such. What elevates the film, though, is that this subdued mode does not overtake the story and the unfolding horror – it actually increases interest and heightens the tension in those sequences when the characters are forced to confront each other and the ambient world drops away (as in the extended sequence where Laura forces them all to play “Never Have I Ever” for high stakes). Thus the nightmare quality, as in the sleepy majority of the film, we are happy to watch this or that little thing happen, tidbits that increase the humanity of these potentially cardboard teens, only to be ripped out of this state of appreciation by snippets of self-destruction and degradation that, because of this contrast (and their brevity) do indeed disturb. Conventions of Internet life are played like sick jokes, but the laughs don’t often come off, and are not cheap when they do, as they are not simply jokes, but, like a bad dream, dig at something more profound. The film manages to ride the line between satire and serious with some skill, and could perhaps be called a true dark comedy.
There are disappointments, of course, as the film sadly has not the courage of its relatively austere convictions. There are moments near the end of the film where non-diegetic sounds (particularly the cliche sub-bass rumble endemic to almost all contemporary horror films) do seep in. The filmmakers chose to over-utilize a kind of digital artifacting and pixilation that is more common in cruddy DVDs or corrupted digital video files than in streaming video, which tends to go soft and smudgy in my experience – while generating some interesting effects, this look winds up reading more as a filter pasted on after the fact, and worse, unlike the rest of the film’s relationship to technology, seems out of touch and ultimately distracts from the verisimilitude. Worst of all, the ending is pretty stupid. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, but it makes sense only from the standpoint of horror conventions we thought we had left behind (in this regard, it reminds me of the first Paranormal Activity). Really, though, this film does engage all the issues surrounding how we relate virtually, and how such relating involves degradation a priori, and it does so in the best possible way: not by saying, but by showing. In its 80 minutes of submersion into what is seductive and horrifying about digital reality, Unfriended both defamiliarizes the technology and makes you feel strangely comfortable and at home, not an easy task. Yes, it is not a terribly poetic film, but anyone who knows me knows that I was won over from the moment the film opens with Liveleak’s lovely warning screen.