In the quest to keep relevant and hip, modern horror has trended toward using social media as both a concept and a mise-en-scène to vomit out the same generic trash horror’s been vomiting out for years. Today’s teenagers are so hardwired into their cell phones and Facebook, I guess the obvious question horror filmmakers ask themselves is, What better way to captivate these online junkies than with online junk? They’re not fooling this old school horror blogger, though. These filmmakers can gussy up their weak characters, poor plots and ugly dialogue with the tech, but in the end trash is trash. Cases in point: FRIEND REQUEST and UNFRIENDED.
FRIEND REQUEST has a pretty cool setup: popular college gal Laura accepts a request from social outcast Marina with zero friends on phony Facebook out of kindness, but then the outcast gets weird and creepy and obsessive. When Laura fibs about spending her birthday with just her boyfriend, Marina sees photos on her Fakebook page and explodes on her in public. Fearing this might get dangerous, Laura calls off their friendship and unfriends her.
This had potential to become a modern, social media take on FATAL ATTRACTION, and I was hoping for a tense thriller resting on the dangers of obsession when friendship turns homicidal in the digital age. The movie then makes a terrible mistake 25 minutes in, when Marina hangs and immolates herself on her Fakebook page. Dead Marina becomes a “ghost in the machine,” offing Laura’s friends and posting videos of their apparent suicides on Laura’s page. There’s a running gimmick of Laura’s friend counter popping up onscreen as its numbers dwindle in droves after each suicide. What started off as a tale of obsession quickly went off the rails in the most generic ways possible, and that’s a shame of a missed opportunity.
There’s plenty wrong with FRIEND REQUEST from the point of Marian’s suicide on. First and foremost, Laura doesn’t deserve any of this. From everything we see of her, she’s really a decent person who nobly offered friendship to someone who was too far gone by the time Laura entered her life. She cuts ties with Marina not to be cruel, but to protect herself from someone who is potentially unstable. Once the videos start posting, Laura tries to do the right thing, to remove the videos and then to shut down her account. None of it works. Yet she’s constantly hounded online by “friends” who pander to society’s greatest ills of reacting without thinking rationally about Laura’s sudden personality change online; some comment on the videos that Laura is sick, and at least one even suggests she kill herself, but no one bothers to suggest Laura was hacked. Even the police, in the form of two hardcore doofuses, hound her to confess to murders that are suicides clearly caught on video. Poor Laura’s getting dealt a bad hand, all for being nice to the wrong person.
The problems extend to her physical friends, most of whom have zero character development. I swore while one guy was offing himself in an elevator that I’d never seen him before, and I had rewind to prove he was actually in the movie prior to his suicide. That he’s apparently the boyfriend of one of Laura’s housemates, about whom I also know nothing, bespeaks of how 9 or 10 minutes of actual character building may have made me care for these kids even a modicum. Only Laura’s boyfriend, who’s defined as being a med student, and her ex, who’s defined by his computer tech abilities, have any second dimension, and they’re still straight out of the Generic Stereotype Generator. If not for one fairly cool twist when the ex decides he’s going to end up in a suicide video of his own and takes matters into his own hands, none of these folks would have any worth.
By the time FRIEND REQUEST runs its third act into the clichéd soil of THE RING territory, complete with the “find the body and return it to grace so we can break the curse” trope, it’s obliterated any good will it garnered with its setup. It’s another generic ghost story, with jump scares and dumb teens only living to die. That the ghost is in the machine doesn’t help it rise above the Quality Equator, or even make it interesting.
But hey, FRIEND REQUEST looks like POLTERGEIST when held up to UNFRIENDED.
UNFRIENDED is probably most noticeable for its gimmick: minus one brief jump scare at the tail end, the whole film takes place on a laptop screen. If you’re not willing to buy into that gimmick, then UNFRIENDED won’t work for you. Of course, if you ask for anything above the Quality Equator in a horror film, then UNFRIENDED also won’t work for you. But I digress. Be warned that UNFRIENDED is a huge heap of trash, and I’m about to hit Empty Trash in my critique.
The film starts with high schooler Blaire watching the suicide of Laura Barnes online, with a link to a bullying video on Youtube. She’s interrupted and starts video chatting with her boyfriend Mitch. Right from the start there are warning signs these are not good kids, as Mitch pulls out a knife that would make Rambo proud, and she goads him to threaten her into a striptease. Before she shows the goods, a group chat shows up on her screen. It includes: Jess, the dumb blonde gal; Ken, the fat computer whiz; and Adam, Mitch’s snarky bestie. The five engage in some of the most banal conversation I’ve seen on film, which speaks both to verisimilitude and to how vapid kids are these days. But there’s one more person in the chat. Represented by a blank avatar and going under the handle “billie227,” she’s about to raise Hell on these five dummies, and the further the flick goes, the more it comes out they deserve it.
The film quickly divulges that this is Laura Barnes. It’s the anniversary of her suicide, and she’s come back online with vengeance in mind. Through her Facebook account, instant messages, emails and the like, Laura taunts these five and also their friend Val, who’s unlucky enough to have answered a chat invite from Blaire. Laura starts picking them off one by one as they stay on the video chat, desperately trying to save themselves from the ghost in the machine.
This may be the Horror Movie Relocation’s strangest case in its history. Try to follow this. Gabriadze’s flick was on the festival circuit under the title CYBERNATURAL, before it eventually became UNFRIENDED. FRIEND REQUEST was produced by a German company, and originally titled UNKNOWN ERROR. In Germany, it’s known as UNFRIEND, and UNFRIENDED is known as UNKNOWN USER. All these title changes were made so as to avoid confusing the two flicks. So why the Hell am I so confused typing all this?
That sounds a lot more thrilling than it is. Director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves do a lousy job of building tension while tying five grating kids to their computers; at one point, I’m supposed to be enthralled in suspense as a wheel spins onscreen and a counter dwindles down to a file download. This is not white knuckle stuff, folks. For a while, Blaire’s side IM’s with Mitch indicate she thinks he’s playing a sick prank, but anyone over the age of six would know it’s not him. As Laura engages in a twisted game of “Never have I ever” with the surviving participants, threatening to kill anyone who signs off and ditches the game, what should be a high stakes game with teenage lives at risk devolves into a raucous shouting match with everybody freaking out. Even that goes off the rails, as Adam hijacks the game; UNFRIENDED doesn’t follows rules, even those it sets for itself.
That game of “Never have I ever” also has one effect I’m not quite sure Greaves ever thought out: it turns the audience against the protagonists. Where FRIEND REQUEST built zero characterization, UNFRIENDED tosses in plenty that reveal its victims to be cruel dickbags. Blaire keeps typing to Laura that they’re all good people and keeps switching to the Fb “in memoriam” page she set up for Laura, but admissions of anorexia rumors, turning in friends to the cops over weed and things much, much worse prove quite the opposite. These kids are all rotten apples, including Blaire herself, and the reveal of the final seconds of the shaming video, though supposed to be some big reveal, showed what I’d figured out long ago about Blaire. It’s hard enough for me to engage with characters when the actors are so dreadful and without craft; asking me to feel any kind of sympathy for them when their general attitude seems to be, “Hey, Laura kind of deserved it,” is asking me to go to a place I will never go. Taking a movie that’s already trash and then outing its leads as scum only compounds what an awful experience UNFRIENDED makes for me.
Making matters worse, I didn’t buy into the gimmick. Though I run a blog and use emails and the like, I’ve never been enamored with computers, and if not for work, I could likely do without my cell phone. That being said, watching five kids’ faces for most of the runtime didn’t exactly stir my levels of excitement. Watching Blaire multitask during their session, downsizing one screen to pull up a chat and then frequently go back to an article that loudly cries, “DO NOT ANSWER MESSAGES FROM A DEAD PERSON” had me bored straight from the start, because this is a movie about a girl sitting at her laptop for 83 minutes. What shocked me most, though, wasn’t the violent tone or the terrible kids, but the fact that Facebook, Youtube, Chat Roulette and other sites allowed UNFRIENDED to license them (especially Youtube, which has clear content rules about bullying, which if you trust this flick have been sidestepped for a year, as Laura’s shaming video is still up). I find it hard to believe any of these sites paid to advertise themselves in this flick, Blumhouse’s name on it or not. That they allowed their likenesses to be used in boring trash is the real shocker.
Oh, and one more thing. That jump scare at the end takes away what would have been a wicked opportunity for a moral lesson. Forced to acknowledge her sins and those of her friends, Blaire should be forced to live with them. That would have designated her a fate worse than death, and maybe the chance to learn something from her wicked ways and atone. But UNFRIENDED isn’t concerned with moral lessons, just one final zinger of a jump scare.
There’s only one saving grace in the flick, and that’s Laura. As a vengeful ghost, she’s got a black sense of humor. When one character asks for her address so she can come beat her up, Laura replies, “you wouldn’t like it here.” The “Never have I ever” game, in which Laura starts shortening the timer with each question, is her way of saying, “I’m fucking with you. Oh, and you’re going to die.” When Adam throws out a question and one of them says it wasn’t Laura’s, she enthusiastically repeats it. Laura understands gallows humor at its best, and if I were 13, I’d give her a smiley face emoticon as kudos. But one wickedly funny ghost can’t save UNFRIENDED.
Ultimately, UNFRIENDED and FRIEND REQUEST fail not because they’re modern, but because like so many horror flicks over the decades, they’re lousy movies on a number of ends. Filmmakers can put as much window dressing as they want on horror, but all it does is act as a veneer for the same old junk underneath. I’m old school in a new age of technology, but I know good horror when I see it, and these halfhearted, no-brained flicks aren’t even trying. If you disagree on that, I’m sorry, but we can never be friends.