There isn’t a whole lot left to do with the found footage horror genre. The shaky cams have become a clichéd pastiche, and they have never quite again found the footing to keep themselves relevant after The Blair Witch Project’s shocking and popularizing use of it. Paranormal Activity breathed a little bit of nuance into the genre, but even that has overstayed its welcome. Hopefully Unfriended doesn’t end up getting the same sort of emulation, because its take on the genre is not only the last leg that found footage has left to stand on, but its novelty is unlikely to remain fresh beyond just one film. It barely manages to stay fresh for this one film.
The set-up is simple, shot as a cybercast of the laptop screen of teenage girl, Blaire. We see her browse Facebook, view YouTube, use Instant Messenger, and Skype with her friends. Through her browsing and chatting, we as the audience begin to piece together the story of Laura, a teenager who was the victim of cyberbullying when a video of her drunk, passed out, and covered in her own shit got posted to YouTube. This terrorism pushed her to kill herself. In the present, Blaire and her friends find a mysterious blank caller among their company, and are unable to hang up on them. Messages start popping up on all their social media outlets, and it quickly becomes clear that this is Laura, bent on forcing them to expose their own innermost secrets and making them pay for their role in driving her to suicide.
As far as the topical nature of its cyberbullying message is concerned, Unfriended does quite an effective job of making its statement, particularly considering the teenage demographic that the film is shooting for. As a slasher film, the point is to watch a group of unlikeable people suffer for a period of time before they are served their comeuppance, and again, the film is quite effective. The use of buffering times, frozen screens, and pixelated glitches add a unique spin to the suspense the film has to offer, and supernatural elements aside it is a pretty accurate representation of the horror that someone can wreak on the Internet with just a bit of private information.
Alas, if you couldn’t tell already though, I’m not generally a fan of found footage films, particularly because I think there isn’t a whole lot left that can be creatively done with the medium. Yes, the Skype angle is a clever twist, particularly given the subject matter, but the camera tricks of obviously and selectively limiting what remains in frame are largely still the same. This is still a film with shallow characters who are generally unlikeable so we don’t feel bad when they die, but it’s simultaneously hard to care about the unseen protagonist of Laura’s spirit. Furthermore, much of the film’s communication takes the form of text messaging, which just isn’t engaging to watch. For every decently executed moment, there’s another that just drags, pretending to build suspense, but really just filling out the runtime until it crosses the feature length mark.
Unfriended has some good ideas, and I’m on board for it bringing awareness to the life-ruining effects of cyberterrorism. However, found footage films are fraught with the same issues that perpetually keep them from achieving greatness, and for every nuance that Unfriended adds, it falls into another trap to keep me from becoming entirely invested. I give this film a very tentative recommendation, given my prejudice against the subgenre, but I think this horse has been beaten a few dozen too many times.
Someone want to argue against me that found footage films are remaining fresh? Leave your rebuttal in the comments below.