Monday, October 19, 2015

Unfriended (2015)(Spoiler Review)

This review contains spoilers.

After a heated confrontation at a party, an anonymous cameraman or woman records an inebriated and semi-conscious Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) laying face first on the ground. When the dust settles, a nameless individual uploads the embarrassing video to YouTube. After the video surfaces, Laura is bombarded with hateful comments online, with the vast majority urging her to commit suicide. One day, a group of bystanders urge Laura to reconsider, but a distressed Laura uses a gun to kill herself at a park.

One year after Laura’s death, Blaire Lily (Shelley Henning), Laura’s childhood friend, re-watches her suicide video online, but Laura regroups during a Skype chat, when her boyfriend, Mitch Roussel (Moses Jacob Storm) contacts her. Blaire and Mitch enjoy a few private moments together and they discuss their plans for prom, but Mitch and Blaire’s friends interrupt the playful and intimate chat. Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), Ken Smith (Jacob Wysocki), Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), and Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson) join Mitch and Blaire in the chatroom.

The friends enjoy each other’s company, while exchanging playful jokes, but a night of fun and harmless banter takes an unexpected turn for the worst, when a mysterious account named billie227 joins the group. Eventually, billie227 identifies herself or himself as Laura, and after a brief search, Blaire confirms billie227 is Laura’s old Skype account.

After a series of failed attempts to remove billie227 from the chatroom, it’s clear billie227 is not some random stranger, because he or she knows secrets about each friend in the group, and billie227 wants the answer to one question: Who posted the video of a drunk Laura on YouTube? The group tries to dismiss billie227 as an annoying troll, but after a series of bizarre deaths, Blaire suspects supernatural occurrences, and billie’s presence raises another alarming question: Is Laura back from the dead to seek revenge for the video?

Scandalous secrets are revealed and lies are exposed during billie’s malicious game of Never Have I Ever, and billie posts more embarrassing videos and pictures of the friends to turn up the heat. Blaire, Mitch, Adam, Val, Ken, and Jess quickly turn on each, as they quickly fall into billie’s trap. Will the teens stick together and trust each other as friends, so they can survive billie227’s deadly game, and catch the culprit behind the madness? Or will they crack under the pressure, as a relentless billie pulls out all the stops to punish the person, who uploaded the video?

My first reaction to a horror film that plans to show everything from a Skype screen cast’s POV and a computer screen’s POV? Well, I wasn’t sure this approach could work, but Unfriended’s gimmick surprised me. The movie opens with a glitchy version of the Universal Pictures intro, and after that, they jump right into it. At some point in the film, I honestly believed Unfriended would change directions to abandon their screen cast/computer screen POV, but it’s non-stop dedication (Blaire using her laptop to find answers with constant research, looking up police codes, using other chatroom sites to call for help, etc.) throughout the movie.

But on the flip side, Unfriended’s style and POV choice is annoying at times. I get the whole point behind realism and staying true to the choice to use a computer screen/screencast POV, but do we really need to see all of Blaire’s typos? Still, with all that said, Unfriended’s gimmick feels a bit tedious towards the end, but the powers that be deserve credit for taking a real chance to bring something fresh to the overcrowded sub-genre, because without the computer screen/screen cast POV, there’s a good chance we’re talking about another mundane and worthless found-footage horror film.

If we’re talking about the characters in Unfriended, everyone is pretty one-dimensional. Blaire and Mitch are the innocent and care-free high school couple, Adam is the loud and cocky jerk, Jess is supposed to be the promiscuous blonde, you get the feeling Ken is the jokester in the group, and Val is….well she’s just there.

So what’s going on? Is billie227 Laura? Has she returned from the grave to wreak havoc? Who’s pulling the strings? Well, loyalty and friendship are tossed out the window quickly, as the friends reveal embarrassing and dark secrets about each other, and the cutthroat backstabbing reaches unprecedented levels of scumminess, as the story progresses. Blaire lied to Mitch about her virginity (Blaire told Mitch she wanted to wait for prom night). It turns out that Blaire is not a virgin, because she had a fling with Adam, and Mitch told the cops about Adam’s marijuana deals, and this secret almost destroyed Adam’s relationship with his father.  On top of that, Jess started rumors about Blaire having an eating disorder, Adam drugged a girl at a party, had sex with her immobile body, and Adam forced the girl to get an abortion after she revealed her pregnancy.

As the game comes to end, Blaire and Mitch are the only remaining survivors. Billie pushes Blaire to reveal the identity of the person, who uploaded the video, so Blaire tells billie Mitch is the culprit. After Blaire’s revelation, Mitch dies after stabbing himself in the eye with a blunt, sharp object.

Blaire is still heartbroken and in shock after Mitch‘s death, but billie227 has some unfinished business with Blaire. Now billie227 wants to know the identity of the person, who shot the video, but billie throws in a twist, when he or she uploads a different version of the video to Blaire’s account. In this version of the video, the identity of the person shooting the video is revealed…….and it’s Blaire. In the video, Blaire laughs at and mocks an unconscious Laura, and the video ends with a smiling Laura saying “I got her.” After the upload, Blaire’s Facebook page is bombarded with hateful comments, and the vitriol includes other users pushing Blaire to commit suicide. 

Blaire receives a taste of her own medicine, and she tries to pander to Laura with cheerful photos of their childhood friendship, but Laura doesn’t buy into Blaire’s transparent attempts to slap a band-aid on the wound. Blaire is only trying to return to Laura’s good graces, because she knows she’s next on the chopping block, and Laura is not falling for it. In the last shot of the movie, Laura pops up behind Blaire in her bedroom,  she closes Blaire’s laptop, and you can hear Blaire’s screams, as the movie ends and the credits start to roll.

Unfriended plays an intriguing guessing game, because you’re never 100% sure about what’s going on with billie227. Is billie227 an impostor? A hacker? A troll? Or, did one of Laura’s friends or family members make the decision to take matters in their own hands for vengeance? Unfriended keeps you guessing until the final moments of the movie, so when Laura pops up, it’s a legit surprise.

Also, it’s safe to say Blaire and Mitch are terrible human beings, right? Blaire and Mitch kept the truth to themselves the whole time, and going by Laura’s rules, they could’ve ended the game and saved lives early on. I mean, you have to guess the plan was to stay quiet, with hopes of riding it out until the end, while everyone else paid the price for Blaire and Mitch’s mistakes, right? As the story progresses, it’s not hard to suspect something fishy with Blaire and Mitch, because they constantly send each other private messages throughout the movie, so you had to know they were hiding something. 

Nothing crosses an extreme line for gore and deaths during the Never Have I Ever fiasco. Ken’s mangled and bloody arm in blender and Jess choking on a hot curling iron (to throw in some dark humor, Laura turns Jess’ s death into a meme) are at the top of the list for nasty moments in Unfriended. And an emotionless and silent Val standing in front of the camera before she falls to the ground is an eerie sight. If we’re talking about gross-out moments, the uncensored version of a drunk Laura laying on the ground provides one of the more obscene moments in the film, because you can clearly see a cluttered mess of feces on Laura’s backside and urine stains.   

Also, you have to wonder if Blaire is the girl Laura was arguing with in the first party video. If you’re wondering, it’s the video where Laura is still coherent and functioning, and she’s clearly in a heated argument with another person, but they never show the face. You have to believe it’s Blaire, and for whatever reason, Blaire decided to record a drunken Laura for payback.

Occasionally you'll see a handful of horror films featuring social commentary, and Unfriended scratches the surface for the ugly side of social media and cyberbullying. In certain cases, others cross the line for being you average troll with taunting and mean spirited jokes, and we take a step towards the argument for social media turning into a breeding-ground for malicious cruelty. Hopefully, the sequel will take more time to explore a more in-depth approach to social commentary for social media, but I’m worried we’ll get another forgettable and through the motions horror sequel.

Unfriended is not without its faults (i.e. narcissistic teens bickering about high school drama), but the movie features enough redeemable qualities, and you don‘t have to worry about an excessive amount of shaky cam abuse for this found-footage film. Unfriended plays a series of mind games that’ll keep you guessing until the end, and if you’re a horror fan that’s looking for something different, Unfriended is worth a try.

With all that said, the Unfriended sequel NEEDS to take big step towards the future. If we’re talking about Unfriended 2 or whatever the hell they plan on calling it, the movie needs to prove Unfriended is not limited to being a one-trick pony with a gimmick (the screen cast/computer screen POV). The social commentary for social media provides more than enough thought-provoking material to build a respectable horror franchise. If the sequel and other potential sequels rely on the gimmick too much, it’ll only be a matter of time before Unfriended receives the same old, same old complaints, and Unfriended will flame out before the series has a chance to build a solid foundation. And if that’s not enough, to add insult to injury, Unfriended will join the list of failed mainstream horror franchises with some real potential.

Oh, and one more small tidbit. After doing some research, apparently “Cybernatural” was Unfriended’s original title. I’m not trying to nitpick too much, but Cybernatural sounds like a better title, because it grabs your attention. But I guess they really wanted to play up the social media tie-ins, and if you stop and think about it, Cybernatural as a title gives away the ending, and Cybernatural gives you a noticeable clue to the mystery behind the attacks and the deaths.

Rating: 6/10



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