Sunday, May 3, 2015

Alone In The Dark: Andrew Reviews "Unfriended" (2015)

Directed By: Levan Gabriadze 

Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman

Rating: R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use

Run Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Synopsis: A group of friends are terrorized during a group Skype session by someone claiming to be the spirit of their friend, Laura Barns (Sossaman), one year to the day of her committing suicide following an embarrassing video of her going viral and the bullying she enduring afterwards.


Andrew: Hello dear readers! Now that we're making a more concerted effort to posting reviews (in conjunction with our schedules actually allowing us to), I'm going to try and do more Alone in the Dark reviews. If you're not familiar or don't remember what those are, Alone in the Dark reviews are when I watch and then review a horror movie all by my lonesome because Sarah doesn't like them. A couple of weeks ago I saw the indie-hit It Follows before she got up here to Connecticut and will be posting that review later this week. 

Today I will be reviewing Unfriended, one of numerous horror offerings coming out this year produced by Blumhouse Productions (producers of films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge). Originally screened last year at Fantasia Festival under the name "Cybernatural," Unfriended is a play on the found footage genre, telling the story of a group of friends who are terrorized during a group Skype session by someone/something claiming to be the spirit of their friend Laura. Oh, and the film takes place one year to the day of Laura committing suicide after she was mercilessly abused online after an embarrassing video of her was uploaded to YouTube.

I had read mixed reviews on Unfriended and was hesitant to check out it myself, but ultimately I gave in because I was intrigued by the concept director Levan Gabriadze used to tell his story - the whole film plays out in real time on the computer screen of our main protagonist, Blaire (Shelley Hennig, of MTV's Teen Wolf), as she Skypes, iChats, scours the web for help, etc. I just had to see how this looked and whether it was pulled off or not.

Unfriended unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of Blaire (top left), and primarily on Skype as seen here.

And I must say for the most part I was impressed with the technical aspects and the details the went into the presentation of the film. I was actually a little mesmerized watching Blaire's cursor flit across the screen as she opened new browser tabs, Googled for answers, messaged her boyfriend and other actions most people of this generation are quite familiar with. It might sound a little boring - and at times it threatened to be for me - but overall I was curious to see what Blaire would do and how she would do it.

One of the strongest aspects of the entire film is that they used real-life sites and social media tools. In most movies of this kind you'd probably see a character use a fictional webcam program or search engine to try and figure out what's happening to them. Not here. Instead Blaire is using Skype, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail, chatroulette and iChat. Most people who see this film will be somewhat - if not intimately -  familiar with all those. Because of that familiarity it's easier to get into what's happening to the characters. 

For instance, at one point Blaire is trying to "unfriend" Laura's Facebook account, but when she clicks to where that option would normally live, it's greyed out/unavailable to her. Because I know that that option should be there, it helped instill a bit of concern and intrigue in me as the viewer since I know that something clearly isn't right. Another instance of that is when Blaire tries to forward an Instragram link on Gmail to her friends but the "Forward" option has disappeared. It seems like a small thing but it was effective.

Speaking of effectiveness, I'll switch gears temporarily to praise the acting a bit. There are six main characters in the film - Blaire, her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Storm); his best friend, Adam (Will Peltz); the techie friend, Ken (Jacob Wysocki); Blaire's girlfriend, Jess (Renee Olstead); and the bitchy friend no one really likes, Val (Courtney Halverson). Hennig's Blaire is without a doubt the strongest in the film and she's a perfect lead for this film. The 28-year-old Hennig certainly pulled off playing a teenager and when every character is really only seen in Skype windows, her expressive face helped.

The group of friend's faired well overall with some coming across stronger than others. Storm's Mitch isn't given a ton to do outside of trying to convince Blaire to give him a little peepshow at the start of the film and then some tense moments as the group is picked off one by one, but he came across as realistic. Peltz's Adam was all over the place, but since his character seemed to have a slight drinking problem and thus was drunk for most of the film, it didn't bother me too much. Olstead's Jess and Halverson's Val came across as the most realistic, especially when their characters were at each other's throats once "Laura" started creating tension in the group. Wysocki's Ken is supposed to be the comic relief/tech wizard of the group but he came across a little too oafish to me.

As a whole I bought it that all these teens were friends with one another but that maybe some friendships were stronger than others. That's certainly how real-life cliques can be and are so I'll give kudos to the actors and director for pulling that off. While some of the dialogue didn't quite work as well as it should have, for the most part the acting/dialogue in the film gave it some verisimilitude.

Speaking of verisimilitude, another online aspect I thought worked very well is when we, the audience, see that Blaire has started typing one thing, stops to think about it, then changes what she wants to say. It's very realistic and gives the viewer more insight into the story even though the other character ends up getting a different message or even no message at all.

With that out of the way, let's talk about what didn't work for me.

While I thought the idea that the viewer was only looking at Blaire's computer screen and the use of real-life internet options worked for the most part, the main conceit that Laura's vengeful spirit was completely inhabiting these kids' computers was a tough pill to swallow at times. How in the world is a dead person's spirit able to mold the internet and technology at their will like the film shows? I know it's a case of having to give in to the world this story is being told in, but Laura's spirit was POWERFUL. It was like she WAS the internet and could manifest as a Facebook message, a Skype message, an Instagram post and whatever else the movie needed her to be all at the same time. Laura gave Ultron a run for his money here.

Not much a different angle, but again you can see the use of YouTube, Facebook and mentions of sites like Twitter and Jezebel. Nice touches, if you ask me.

But fine, I'll go with it. Laura's all-powerful. That said, there were some other actions by our characters that seemed like the script needed them to happen just so the plot could move forward. And some of these actions didn't always line up with what else we were seeing on the screen. An instance of this is Blaire iChats Mitch outside of the Skype convo, but I could see on the screen that Mitch is in a position where typing on his computer seems unlikely. I even started to wonder if maybe Laura was posing as Mitch in the iChat window. Maybe that's what they were going for, but I'm leaning towards no.

And for being a movie that depicts these friends as being pretty technologically savvy, the script called for Blaire to be kind of dumb at times for the sake of exposition. At one point she has to ask what a "troll" is. What current high school student doesn't know what an internet troll is? Or later on when Laura is forcing the friends to play a high-stakes version of a popular drinking game, Blaire is once again in the dark. It was comical like that. It also bugged me that when Blaire had to copy and paste something she would do so using the right click menu instead of Control+C and Control+V like a normal person. 

I also scratched my head at how Laura got her hands on some particularly racy photos/videos that she uses to torture the friends. This is one of those horrors films that uses the cliched trope where one friend is sleeping with another when he/she shouldn't be, and Laura has proof. How she got that proof just shows how omnipotent she is, but I also had to question why an off-to-the-side video of the two friends' tryst even existed in the first place if they were supposed to be drunk when it happened.

Last nit-pick: most of the kills in the movie were foreshadowed somehow. A couple of them seemed really forced, with me wondering why in the world a couple of characters in particular would even have the weapons they had on hand. The other few ways the characters perished seemed more realistic and even pretty harsh. Laura is mean here. Kudos to that, though I wish the editing wasn't done in such a way that some of the kills were either off-screen or tough to make out. The film was already rated R for language, might as well go stronger on the kills since it's a horror movie.

Whoops, sorry, this is the last nit-pick: at one point Blaire "shares" her screen with Ken (and the rest of the group?) so he can see that she truly doesn't have a forwarding option on her Gmail. Maybe I missed it, but it didn't appear to me she ever ended the screen-sharing, so when she's typing to Mitch something negative about Ken shortly thereafter, shouldn't he and everyone else have been able to see it?

End nit-picking.

So was Unfriended scary? On the whole… no. There were certainly some moments of tension, particularly a bit of a "prisoner's dilemma" that Laura puts the final three friend's through. There is a well-done kill set-up that utilizes a vibrating cell phone. And like I said earlier, when Blaire is unable to do some basic internet actions on websites and programs I was familiar with, it helped increase the tension.

I liked Unfriended for what it was even though I thought it faltered in some aspects. On the whole I thought it was a very ambitious attempt at film-making, especially since I know they attempted to shoot the entire movie in long, singular takes. The film could be a little on the nose at times, but I also give it some praise for bringing some sort of attention to cyber-bullying and bullying in general. Haven't seen that much.

FINAL VERDICT: If you're just looking for a good horror movie, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Unfriended, but if you're looking for something different or something unique, it's worth giving a shot.
(Updated Individual Scores: - S: N/A  A: 3.5)

- I'd like to see this again once it's on home video just so I can pause it and read all the stuff that Blaire scrolls past when looking things up. There's a particular forum post about responding to the undead that she scrolls through and I'd love to see what details might be hiding in there. She also opens up her browser history at one point and there seemed to be some Easter Eggs in there, like I saw the Teen Wolf website in there.

- Val, the bitchy character, has the same iPhone cover that Sarah does. I thought that was kind of funny.

- Two of the trailers that played before the movie were more intense than this movie was and I'll be making sure I catch them - another Blumhouse movie called The Gallows and a film that appears to be the latest directorial effort from M. Night Shyamalan called The Visit.

- Funny story to share: As I was leaving the theatre there was an older gentleman on the stairs. I hadn't realized there was anybody else in the theatre with me, but there he was slowly descending the steps. As I approached him he stopped and said, "Can I ask you a question?" I said, "Yessir," and he asks me, "Was this movie anything like what you were expecting???" Clearly sensing that Unfriended either wasn't the movie he thought he was coming to see or it just didn't come across like whatever advertising he saw for it did, I lied and responded, "I have to say that it was not what I was expecting, no." He chuckles and says, "I guess you can't win 'em all," and shuffled away. I felt so bad for him, but it made me chuckle myself. 

Photo Courtesies: Blumhouse Pictures, Universal