Unfriended (aka Cybernatural)
2014 Russia/USA/Poland/Germany/Puerto Rico
Directed by Levan Gabriadze
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Possible slight spoiler in the third paragraph,
depending on how well you know my genre definitions.
So this is a film I saw the trailer to at the cinema a few weeks back but which wasn’t really tempting me to take the plunge, to be honest. Also weighing against it was the fact that it looked like it was another teen slasher movie and they really are not my favourite genre, often mistaken by many as passing for horror films. However, I then started reading some enthusiastic word-of-mouth on Twitter and so, although I didn’t think I was really the intended audience for this picture, I decided to give it a go anyway. I have to say that, if the movie had been released over here with the first (of two) titles it was released with in the USA, Cybernatural, then I would definitely not have bothered... much as I love the occasional pun, that’s a real turn-off of a title. So it's definitely congratulations to the marketing team for at least giving the movie a moniker that was halfway appealing (I don’t belong on Facebook but I at least have a concept of “unfriending”... it’s like “unfollowing on Twitter, right?).
The film is almost, but not quite, unique in that the whole of the running time, apart from one shot I won’t shout out to here, takes place on the computer screen of one of seven characters... six of whom are friends and the seventh of whom... well... isn’t. Most of the action takes place as a Skype conference call with an unwanted person who is, in reality, controlling the situation and manipulating the other characters... and this is why I say this concept is not entirely unique. There’s a short film in part of the movie V/H/S (reviewed here) which plays with the same medium, although it uses it for a slightly different end result than what the final solution here turns out to be. That being said, it doesn’t stick to Skype completely and the lead character, Blaire (played by Shelley Hennig and with a character name that may possibly be a deliberate echo of one of the most famous “found footage” movies of all time, The Blair Witch Project), uses all kinds of cyber media to try and find out just what is going on and who is playing an elabourate game of death with her and her friends... including such online tools as internet messenger, facebook and a few others. That is to say, if I had to pick one of the six lead players as the main protagonist, it would be her... not least of all because it’s her screen and her actions we see play out before us.
The film itself is, actually, a teenage slasher movie but, it turns out, it’s also a film that I would personally class as a horror movie too... and if you know my criteria as to what constitutes a horror movie then I guess that might be considered a spoiler of sorts... but by about half way through the film, if you’re watching carefully, you’ll figure out the exact nature of the “ghost in the machine”, so to speak, due to a logical deconstruction of what’s happening before your eyes.
Now, as I was watching the movie, the most interesting thing I found about it was the technique with which the director had allowed something which is supposed to be set in real time to be able to cut away from everybody at certain points so he can insert different takes, etc... and also allow himself places where he can either cut from one take to another and, in the case of the many “murder/suicide” sequences in the movie, allow himself time to change over to the mechanics of doing a practical effects shot. So there are moments where our main protagonist will fill her screen, accidentally, or on purpose, at different points with other tab views so that the takes of various actors being pieced together can be refreshed or whatever. I found this clever but, ultimately, a bit of a let down because, as I supposed, you could see the wet footprints of this particular technique hidden in the way the action was choreographed. No big deal but dissapointing for a movie which is supposed to be taking place in real time before our very eyes.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the film had been shot in the space of just twelve days with different takes of the actors, all Skyping from separate rooms in a house, and that just a single one of these 'live' long takes of the film’s total running time were used for the final movie. Seriously? I already loved what the actors were doing. Nailing their “really annoying teens you wouldn’t ever want to hang out with” roles quite skillfully but... this was all done as one take? Phenomenal. They must have had a lot of dry run rehearsals I reckon. Still not fully convinced but happy to take them at their word on that, for now.
There are some seriously negative aspects to the movie... annoying teens I have no sympathy for being one of them. There’s also the fact that the film makers have a tendency to put... let’s call it “audio/visual intereference” over certain bits... just like you would normally get over a Skype connection (actually, if I were a head honcho at Skype I’d be dead annoyed at the amount of internet signal drop out shown in this film), even doing this to the Universal logo at the start of the movie. The fact is, though, it won’t take you long to figure out that when this happens, something is soon going to happen to one of the people on one of the Skype screens and the director is using the 'digital interference' to ratchet up the tension and suspense. Now, to be fair, and given the nature of the “slasher/stalker” in this picture, it could be something which also has a basis in the physics of how a particular character works but, ultimately, it’s an emotional tool to squeeze more hysteria from the audience, I think, and the trick kind of wears thin quite quickly... at least it did for me.
That being said, there are also some cool positives to the movie, especially over what you would get in a standard teen slasher picture, which do make it worth a watch. The obvious one being the uncanny and skillful 'Nancy Drew Investigates' tone of Blaire as you see her using all her technical skills to either vanquish their attacker or find out who it really us... which gives the audience a direct link to the mind set and progress of the character in a very visual way which rarely, though sometimes, devolves into backing it all up with explanatory dialogue. A kind of visual opening into a mental link, as it were. That’s pretty neat, actually, and could probably be used to take the action into another kind of place in the inevitable sequel, if the film makers decide to pull on that specific kind of thread.
Another positive is that the film doesn’t try and cheat you in any way. It has a simple logic to the main premise and identity of the attacker and it sticks to the parameters it’s set up for itself... which is more than can be said for a few horror movies in recent years. The final solution to the mystery of the six friend’s attacker may be seen, by some, as less than credible but, ultimately, it doesn’t try and trick the viewer into another direction half way through. It sticks to its guns and, although I didn’t particularly find the final reveal to be all that interesting (because I love playing whodunnit games), you certainly can’t argue about the ultimate, blink and you almost miss it, last shot reveal. So it all makes sense and that’s a good thing.
Ultimately, the way I feel about this movie is a little like how I felt about Monsters: Dark Continent (reviewed here). It’s a very competently made film with convincing actors and actresses all doing their best to make you believe in what you’re seeing... the downside being, for me personally, that I would never want to be hanging out with any of these people anyway and, therefore, didn't really care all that much if any or all of them got killed. All that being said, however, I do think this movie could score well with teenage audiences and I think this is definitely a franchise spawner if the movie makers wanted to go that way. Horror addicts will probably enjoy it and I certainly would take a look at a sequel myself, if one ever came along. Not a big hitter like It Follows was earlier in the year (my review of that beautiful movie is here) but much more competent than a lot of teen horror in the overcrowded marketplace. If you like these kinds of films then you’ll proabably have a reasonably good time with this one, I reckon.