I went into Unfriended expecting garbage. I told multiple people that I was on my way to the screening, and they asked why. I told them I didn’t know, but I was expecting terrible things. The trailer compared itself to The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, arguably the most important found footage horror movies… well, ever. It’s a ballsy move, putting your film at that level. Especially when the trailer that accompanied those claims was, to put it lightly, kind of awful.
But I nonetheless found myself in the theater, surrounded by people in the way I said I never would again. I hoped that a press screening meant there would be no cell phones or peanut gallery to contend with. Fortunately, I was right. But I realized another reason I don’t like watching horror movies with crowds: Because I’m a wimp.
And I really didn’t want other people to see me staring at the screen with my hands over my eyes for fully two-thirds of Unfriended’s runtime.
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Unfriended is about a girl who doesn’t know how to use Cmd+C. Her name is Blaire (get it?), and the film takes place entirely on her computer screen. And I do mean entirely. Throughout, you can see her system bar and her various tabs. There are bits and pieces of a person there, most of which are probably nonsense on close inspection but serve to create a relatively effective illusion of a teenage female. I mean, she has a tumblr. Sadly, you never get to see her tumblr, just stare at the concept of it up in the tab bar while you’re trying to avoid looking at whatever is happening elsewhere onscreen (because you’re me, and you’re very easily startled).
What Unfriended does is complicated. It’s complicated for a lot of reasons, and for that reason alone it’s deserving of praise in a way that, say, Paranormal Activity is not. Paranormal Activity is scarier than Unfriended, but Unfriended is far more technologically compelling. Rather than a couple of people in a house, it’s half a dozen people in as many houses. These people are all linked by a single Skype conversation, one that starts and stops for various reasons. But sometimes it’s going and the audience doesn’t get to see what’s happening, because Blaire is too busy looking at her Facebook. Or at least the Facebook of her dead classmate.
I shot a film a few weeks ago. A fair portion of that film takes place in a chatroom or on Google or looking at a narrative-relevant website. I had to make a fake website and doctor Google results. I had to attempt to make these things look like they were real. It was complicated. Now I’m in editing, and I’m running into a different issue: How best to cut between a character and his words? There are a whole lot of different ways to tackle this issue. There’s the recent trend towards chat bubbles showing up onscreen. That’s ostensibly the best of both worlds, but it’s also really silly looking. You can’t have something be dramatic (like my film) or horrific (like Unfriended) and use that effect. So you cut back and forth, but you don’t know how fast your audience is at reading. And you have to hold on the text, but that kills the pacing of the scene, because you want some dead time to look at the face of your character. But you need it to be faster than that, because if people get bored watching some dude in a chatroom, they won’t get to the good parts of the movie.
It’s a fine line. You may think that Unfriended doesn’t have to walk it, given that it’s essentially 100% chatroom, but it does. It has to be even more careful, because staring at a Skype chatroom is fine and visually diverse, but an iMessage conversation? For more than a minute? And nothing else? You have to make sure that the pacing of that conversation is flawless, but you also have to make sure that everyone has the time to grasp it. Blaire will go to a website, give the speedreaders in the audience enough time to read something, and then she’ll go over it with her cursor to help along the people who didn’t realize they were supposed to be looking at the ridiculously large text that that forum commenter used on his narratively important response.
When she’s having those conversations or looking at those websites, you don’t see Blaire’s face. You have to discern her feelings from her mouse movements and clicks, and the pauses in her typing. You have to assume a lot of things about her and about the way she acts. You need to assume that she’s uncomfortable, and that’s why she paused here, or she was scared and that’s why she rushed. If you can’t accept that, you will have to project your own emotions onto her actions, then you won’t be able to watch this movie for more than ten minutes. She may “be” a “person,” but if you don’t see her in that Skype bubble, she may as well be an avatar in a not-particularly-fun text adventure that you don’t get to control. And hell, even if you do see her in the corner, well, I guess it’s a Let’s Play. A Let’s Play of a really uncomfortable Alternate Reality Game (ARG).
But there’s something fundamentally off-putting about our main character’s inability to use keyboard shortcuts; the act of copying and pasting requires a long and complicated series of mouse clicks. She can’t be like a regular person, Cmd+C, Cmd+V, done. She has to right click… copy… right click… paste. And we have to witness each agonizing moment of this action, over and over again, because she sure does like copying and pasting. (I mean, who doesn’t? It’s super useful. But when your movement is hampered by the fact that your audience might get confused if your character were to use a keyboard shortcut, then you become unrelatable. Here is a high school girl who types and texts like a high school girl, but she’s not a high school girl, because high school girls probably don’t even know that right click to copy/paste is even an option. Why would they? Nobody uses that shit. Except Blaire.)
Blaire. Blaire. Blaire. What are we going to do with you?
In this group of stereotypes, only Blaire really seemed to like Laura Barns. Laura Barns is the dead classmate I mentioned all the way back when. Exactly one year before this film takes place, Laura Barns committed suicide. Why? Because someone posted a really unpleasant video, starring her extremely drunk self. The video was called, “Laura Barns Kill Yourself” or something to that effect. People agreed. Then she did.
(It’s worth noting that the actual suicide, which you see footage of relatively early on, very easily could have failed to kill her. She held the gun at arm’s length, pointed it towards herself, and eventually pulled the trigger. If the paramedics had gotten there in time, she very possibly could have survived. How traumatic would that have been, huh?)
A year later, she decides to fuck with some people who she may or may not have been friends with. Blaire was one of them, and then the other people in Blaire’s friend group. There’s her boyfriend, Mitch, who is strong (you know that, because his profile picture is of him flexing); Adam, who also looks kind of strong but isn’t Blaire’s boyfriend; Jess, who is blonde; Ken, who is a l33t hacker (you know because he’s fat and smokes weed); and then Val, who is skanky (you know because her name is Val). I just looked at the IMDb cast list and saw other names, so apparently there are other people in the film. Color me surprised, because I can’t remember a single one of them.
So anyway: Laura died, right? A year later, she comes back to haunt everyone there. Not because they had anything to do with it, necessarily, but because they’re associated with people who did. Or they didn’t stop her. Or something. I dunno. Point is, she’s out for blood. Yada yada yada. People die. Whatever.
But here’s an interesting little tidbit: The film was shot in one take. There were reshoots, of course, and I expect that the vast majority of the things we see onscreen were created in post rather than at the time, because let me tell you, it is difficult to take a webpage and then make a visually identical but slightly functionally different. When you see a version of Skype that won’t let you end a call, that’s not some quick and simple fix. That took work, whether it was some crazy pre-production development or some graphical finessing in post. It’s. Not. Easy.
Nor is doing an 80 minute movie in a single take, but that’s what Unfriended did. They didn’t have to, of course. As we’ve established, many of the characters are offscreen for any number of reasons at any given time. But they did it in one take anyway. A few pickups and inserts aside, this film was done in one go. That’s fascinating, but the fundamental logic behind the decision says a lot about both the actors and their relationship to the source material. Shelley Hennig, who played Blaire, was having problems with the 10 minute long takes they were doing. She was having trouble keeping the energy up between takes, and to her it seemed easier to just do the whole thing without stopping. Here’s what this says about her: She’s not a film actress. She’s a theatre actress. In an overly long analysis of Birdman, I discussed some of the things that make each unique, and by shooting Unfriended in one take, it actually goes a long way towards making the film a true example of theatre. Or maybe a Let’s Play.
(Seriously, this movie is a lot like a Let’s Play.)
Here’s what it says about her relationship to the source material: They didn’t connect, not on a fundamental level. She did a perfectly fine job in the film, and I won’t deny her that, but she’s working with subpar material, and she knows that. They all know that. How could they not? It’s a movie about a haunted Skype session. Literally. That’s so stupid!
And that stupidity can make it hard to keep up intensity and energy. As theatre, where things can go wrong but you just keep going, there’s a spark of intensity and fire that builds up as time goes on. Film doesn’t have that, because the fundamentals of how a movie is constructed make it impossible to keep building that. You build, cut, rebuild, cut, rebuild. I greatly enjoy film acting, but the things I like about it are in direct opposition of the things I greatly enjoy about theatrical acting. The way that this film was designed meant that they could have their theatrical experience played against some not-so-hot material. They got into character and just went from there. It was a smart move. I imagine that the film, had it been filmed in chunks, would have felt less cohesive as a result.
Because if it feels anything, it’s cohesive. This is surprisingly effective worldbuilding. It’s a deadly ARG. I could imagine some elaborately designed websites and forum posts and fabricated Google results that all point to the mistake that all of these characters make: Don’t respond to dead people. If your dead classmate sends you a Facebook message, fucking ignore it.
Is it slightly unfair that they only learned that rule after they had responded to the ghost? Yes. But the movie doesn’t happen if everyone’s like, “Lol! I ain’t falling for your shit, ghost!” So we have to have stupid characters who will do stupid things and make stupid decisions. Otherwise there’s no film. You rescind your right to criticize that kind of idiocy when you buy a ticket for a horror movie called Unfriended.
But you know what’s interesting about the framing narrative? It’s oddly believable that all of these characters would stay on the computer, that they would, in a sense, keep filming. This is a horror movie where the characters don’t really “split up.” A character goes to check out a scary noise, and he brings his laptop with him. That makes sense. Of course he does! He wants the emotional support of the people closest to him. They try to hang up on the Skype call, but if they open it back up, the ghost didn’t go away. And then if they tried to leave for good? Well, let’s just say they have reason to believe that things might take a turn.
If I had been watching Unfriended surrounded by people I knew, it would have been a different experience. I usually refuse to allow conversation while I’m in a theater or even at home watching something on TV. But here’s a different story. I said many, many words ago that I was covering my eyes for much of Unfriended. That’s true. I had one eye closed for nearly the entire runtime. As soon as things got scary, I winced and didn’t unwince until the credits rolled. I spent certain parts of the film staring at the audience. Not their reactions, just the backs of their heads. I knew that what was going on the screen would probably make me scream like a small child, and I really didn’t need anybody to see that.
Because Unfriended is effective in the exact same way that Paranormal Activity is effective. There are long periods of time where nothing happens, and then suddenly the loudest goddamn noise you’ve heard in your life blares through the speakers. You jump. It’s not “scary” necessarily, but it makes me jump every single time. I know it’s coming, because absolute silence in movies of this sort is never punctuated with anything but a BANG. But the wait to get to that sound can be agonizing. And when it comes, the results are mixed. Sometimes it’s dumb or obscured by weird movement or whatever. And then sometimes it is legitimately fucked up. Nothing in Paranormal Activity actually disgusted me. Several things in Unfriended did. The imagery is just… ugh.
(I’m thinking in particular of an image macro posted later in the film. You’ll know the one.)
But the imagery comes at key points in the narrative, and perhaps the filmmakers should be applauded for understanding the peaks and valleys required of a narrative like this. When I think about the meticulous sense of pacing that the film sometimes has, I think about this: There’s a moment in the film where the ghost sends an image file to everyone in the group. After much discussion (or at least people saying “DON’T CLICK THAT!”), Blaire clicks it. The file takes at least 14 seconds to download. Fourteen agonizing seconds. And you wonder: Is this real time? Are we waiting because they’re waiting? Or is this to build up the anticipation of this image, because we might have some idea what it is, but we don’t really know.
The second image she downloads is done in under a second. The team knew that audiences wouldn’t stand for that again. So they didn’t make them. They went off to the next trick. They had plenty of tricks available, because there are so many things that can be done with social media and breaking the rules as the characters understand them, but also as we understand them. We can relate to how creepy it would be if suddenly we couldn’t drop mysterious figures from Skype calls or if we suddenly couldn’t unfriend particularly problematic Facebook friends.
But then again, the film features an extended sequence where Blaire, understandably freaking out, slightly less understandably turns to ChatRoulette to find help. What follows is legitimately bizarre and completely destroys the tension the movie has built up. Throughout, there are moment like that. I wouldn’t call the film “self-aware” necessarily, but I would call it “a-typical” in a fascinating way. I mean, as generic as its actual storyline is, its presentation is still unique and executed quite well. It’s not the first film to do the whole “Takes place entirely on a screen” thing, but it absolutely is the first film to try it on this scale (the recently released Open Windows is far less complex), and I think everyone deserves props for pulling it off.
You could much worse than Unfriended. And that may be the most shocking thing of all.