Unfriended (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Unfriended (2015)

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Facing relentless humiliation from her peers after a video of her partying is released, Laura Barns commits suicide.  On the anniversary of her death one year later her friends begin a conversation over the internet with an unknown party.  When the party identifies herself as Laura, each member of the chat room takes their turn facing the same scrutiny as Laura.  Levan Gabriadze directs Unfriended from a screenplay written by Nelson Greaves and stars Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, and Moses Jacob Storm.

Hands up everybodyDavid Lynch, in one of his many memorable statements which made rounds on the internet, said that “not in a trillion years” will you experience a movie correctly watching it on your phone. Until last night, I completely agreed with him, because movies are created for a wide-screen and big audience. It’s why they’re considered a socialist form of media. But last night I watched Unfriended, and have to agree only partly with Lynch. Most movies will never reach the same heights if placed in a medium it was not originally designed for.

Unfriended begs the question of what movies would be like if they were designed for slightly different means of projection, and the answer is alive with possibility. This may be one of the few experiences I’ve had where watching a movie at home, alone, and on my laptop, would actually improve on watching it in the theater with an engaged crowd. Instead of feeding off of the energy and anxiety of others it was my own technological habits which gave me plenty of anxiety during Unfriended as I grew paranoid of the sounds of the film overlapping with my use of Facebook, Skype, or any other number of programs.

This isn’t to say Unfriended wouldn’t work in a theater. In fact, some of the cinematography provided by Adam Sidman creates monsters in a digital abyss which would have played just as well if blown up to scale. For Sidman to capture some of the shots he would have had to induce “errors” in the Skype video transmission software used during the film as well as lit the scene properly in each of the environments. The technical aspect of this construction is impressive enough, but when Mitch’s (Moses Jacob Storm) face distorts into a jagged mess with his eyes piercing through the digital noise the impact is immediate and haunting.

In our new constantly connected society humiliation is instant and irreversible.

In our new constantly connected society humiliation is instant and irreversible.

Sidman’s cinematography works with Levan Gabriadze’s direction to imply how we gaze at others through technology to cut at exposed nerves. That Unfriended is about a teen’s friends deal with the first anniversary of her suicide is not an accident. Mitch’s terrifying gaze through the digital glitch is just as piercing as Jess’ (Renee Olstead) relatively clean video image. The cleanliness hides what she knows, and as incriminating pictures seem to be posted from Jess’ social media accounts it becomes clear that the “clean” image presented by the internet hides a web of truth no one wants to touch.

The pulsing reality of the truth combined with the nervous edge of the teens and glitch-ridden video conversation create an eerie cautionary tale. Politicians, performers, company leaders, and average people on the internet are just a couple of clicks away from having their secrets exposed. One of the many sick layers of irony in Unfriended is that this new technology makes it easy for the teens to hang out and that ease of conversation makes any detail they reveal about themselves a potential weapon. Whether some of those details deserve to be revealed or not is beside the point, they are exposed and could be deadly no matter how innocent they may seem at first.

A streak of almost perfect dark visual humor underlines how each interaction may influence how the internet “pushes” them to act. When Mitch sends his girlfriend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) a link about hauntings early in Unfriended it initially seems like the kind of bad exposition horror films sometimes throw out. But when she’s trying to find information later the previous link “taints” her searches, makes it more difficult for her to find what she wants, and increases her paranoia. Now that’s not “hah hah” funny, more of a clever funny, and the true “hah hah” funny comes when a video of Adam (Will Peltz) and Blaire’s infidelity is shown and the related links are all about declared love and bold marriage proposals. When I was single it seemed every corner of the internet was trying to remind me of this fact, and when face with relationship-ending reveals the internet of Unfriended just wants to dig into the wound a little more.

In another new twist on old horror, the sin of sexual attraction brings punishment even when there's no direct contact.

In another new twist on old horror, the sin of sexual attraction brings punishment even when there's no direct contact.

The darkness extends to the sound design, which is some of the most ingenious work I’ve encountered in recent horror. I can easily imagine how the rapid clip audio of Blaire’s typing and silences broken by a sudden social media message would play in a theater. There it would function as a sort of audio jump scare, but at home on my laptop it just made me paranoid of my computer. I frequently watch movies on my laptop and take notes or look up information if something is referenced and I don’t know what it is. This means going on autopilot and looking up Facebook, so I would get absorbed back into watching Unfriended then hear a Facebook chime and my reflexes would take me back to Facebook, where I’d see it was Unfriended but not Facebook which made that noise.

Further soundtrack choices heighten the tension. During one particularly rough moment with Ken (the always awesome Jacob Wysocki of Terri) I couldn’t tell if the soundtrack playing was from the movie diegetically, was separate to the experience, or something which accidentally loaded on my laptop. I was clicking around as feverishly as the characters trying to make sure I wasn’t ruining my experience by watching Unfriended on a laptop, but it turns out that watching it in this way just let Gabriadze and company screw my perception further into “nervous wreck” territory.

Like all great horror, Unfriended presents a moral judgment on its characters then asks us to question that judgment. They’re all stupid teens, prone to uncontrollable outbursts and hurtful expressions. Did they deserve to be punished for what they did? Ask Rehtaeh Parsons’ family. Or Amanda Todd’s. Or Todd Loik’s. But did they deserve to die? Unfriended starts with that question and works its way back in a tense, exciting, and fresh take on the way an old medium can be put to new use.

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Tail - UnfriendedUnfriended (2015)

Directed by Levan Gabriadze.
Screenplay written by Nelson Greaves.
Starring Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, and Moses Jacob Storm.

Posted by Andrew

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