Unfriended (2015): A group of online chat room friends find themselves haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force using the account of their dead friend.
Ok. Let's talk about the horror genre today, shall we? This isn't really a review of Unfriended as much as it's a discussion about the genre as whole. We'll just be using Unfriended as the primary example. Because it is unwillingly everything that's wrong with it today. So recently, I've really been getting into the genre and watching a lot of horror films. Now, why I would want to watch these films by myself is beyond even me, but that isn't the point. it should be noted before I talk about what's wrong with it I should say there are some recent great films in the genre. 2013's The Conjuring is terrifying and the pinnacle of what a big budget horror film can and should be. And by big budget I mean $20 million. There's no such thing as $100 million budgets in horror. 2012's You're Next was a great throwback to the slasher genre of the '70s and '80s. 2015's It Follows is terrifying and original, and shows that less can be just as scary as more. But these great films are surrounded by Saw 72, Paranormal Activity 354, Insidious The ACTUAL Final Chapter Verse 2.3 and countless other sequel-bait horror films. Hell now The Conjuring is getting an official sequel to be paired with that awful Annabelle prequel-like-thingy we got in 2014, and there's even rumor that The Cabin in the Woods 2 is happening. Do we really need that? No. What we need are more directors trying to be innovative in the genre. Sure, that means you'll get failures like 2015's The Lazarus Effect (God bless Olivia Wilde, but boy did that film suck) and 2014's Clown, but at least Eli Roth (Clown) and David Gelb (The Lazarus Effect) were trying to be innovative. But then there's Unfriended. Which is the perfect example of why the horror genre is as messed up as it is today.
So let's talk about this film. I should say that it's a decent piece of cinema. If I had to give it a score, I'd probably give it a 6/10. Its gimmick of having all 83 minutes be through a computer screen works, and director Leo Gabriadze and company even add decent production value by putting things on the computer screen that a teenaged girl would have, (just look at the photo above) and the acting is solid. But it's just one overused premise after another, while specifically targeting the pre-teen/teenager demographic that were too young to remember how scary the first Paranormal Activity was when it first came out in 2009. This film creates a decent piece of cinema while playing things as safe as humanely possible and targeting the lowest common denominator. The film is "scary" in that it's one pop scare after another. Also known as a jump scare, a pop scare is when everything is silent and then all-of-the-sudden BOOM! A WALL OF NOISE AND SOMETHING UNEXPECTED HAPPENS. To me, a pop scare in a horror film is the same as hearing someone say Boo! At a haunted attraction. It's lazy! And not scary! (Spoiler alert forthcoming-only if you think that people don't die in horror films) Only one of the deaths in Unfriended is actually creepy, which is, of course, the one we see in the trailers. Ken killing himself with a blender was somewhat creepy. But the rest of the deaths are just pop scares! Nothing original about them. Just everything silent and then BOOM! Somebody's dead. Compare this to It Follows. There's very little death in this film, but holy crap the deaths we do see are still engrained in my head. They are creepy as f*ck and incredibly scary. So, to all those filmmakers out there, you don't have to kill all your characters in a horror film, but when you do, be creative about it. Don't go full balls deep with this like the Final Destination films do, but use the environment you have in the character's setting to create a death that is tough to watch and creepy as hell.
Now let's talk about what makes these films scary. It's ok to have a few pop scares in your film, but the whole point of a pop scare is to not be expecting it. Let's use 2010's Insidious as an example, because this film is phenomenal when it comes to effective pop scares. One involves a conversation with Patrick Wilson and a few other characters that's a standard conversation. The camera is going back and forth between the characters, and everything is completely normal. Nothing to see here. Then, all of the sudden, the camera cuts to Patrick Wilson, and there is a f*cking demon behind him. WHAT! WHERE THE HELL DID THAT COME FROM? I just about fell out of my seat the first time I saw this. Compare that to Unfriended, where a character-in-distress's webcam would cut out when bad crap started happening to them, and everything was silent. Everyone in the theater knew a pop scare was coming. Is a predictable pop scare still scary? Plenty of people in the theater were terrified, but I would argue that it's not scary. Because you know it's coming.
But you can be terrifying without pop scares. Just look at It Follows! There's 2-3 pop scares in that entire film, and yet it is one of the scariest films the genre has seen in a loooong time. So, for all you filmmakers out there, how is It Follows so great and creative? How does it succeed at thinking outside the box when Unfriended does not? Well, first off, it puts rules on its antagonist. Its entity, so to say. In Unfriended, that entity could do whatever it wanted, so you knew it could be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. There was no rules for it. I would argue that this greatly reduces the scare factor, because you're expecting it to be everywhere. The entity in It Follows was limited by rules, and thus you knew there was stuff it could not do. By grounding the entity with rules, the filmmakers made what the entity did do that much scarier. Next up, for the love of God, don't wait until the last moments of your film to reveal the entity to the audience. Yes, it makes those final pop scares more dramatic, but if you allow the entity to show itself early on, there's so much more you can do with it! Insidious was a good film, but had the lady in black revealed herself early on in the film, it would've been that much creepier. Unfriended waits until literally the last moment of the film to actually reveal the entity, which was a complete waste of something that should have been extremely creepy from the start. Even though yes, it was a great last scare. But there could be a lot more if they had revealed the entity earlier. Finally, don't have a gimmick be your selling point. Because if it is, and your film is successful, we're gonna see that gimmick used 100 more times. Paranormal Activity was scary because of the fact that many people were sold on it being ACTUAL found footage. But now, how many "found footage" films have we gotten? I mean there's only 457 Paranormal Activity films now. Plus that Sinister film, which is now somehow getting a sequel too. And a lot more. Unfriended uses the "found footage" formula as well. But show some creativity! You don't need a clown suit to sell your scary movie. (Aka Clown's selling point) After all, there is nothing out of the ordinary with the entity in It Follows. They're ordinary people following our protagonists. No super weird makeup or anything. But each and every time we see the entity, it's memorable and creepy.
Finally, music. The horror genre is one of the few genres out there in my opinion that really REALLY benefits from an effective score/song selection. I mean, Tiptoe Through the Tulips has become the centerpiece for Insidious, but when the little kid first plays that song in the original, it's one of the scariest and most memorable scenes I've ever watched in a horror film. It Follows and The Cabin in the Woods also have effective and creepy scores in their films that really add to the atmosphere. After all, suspense is the name of the game in a horror film, and music is just as effective in increasing this as silence is. Comparatively, there's very little music in Unfriended, and when it is used, it is used very ineffectively, with surface-level depth to the song selections. Hell, there's basically no music at all in the Paranormal Activity franchise. Music works, filmmakers! Use it!
So, how do I sum this up? Well, I believe there is hope for the genre. Sure, we have remake after remake forthcoming, but It Follows showed us that originality can still come through from time to time. And, even when we have unoriginal ideas, we will still get some solid execution, as is the case with Unfriended. But, for all your horror addicts out there, it is important to support the good films of the genre. Don't go out and see The Conjuring 2 just because The Conjuring was great. Spend your hard-earned money on the indie films, where filmmakers are being creative and thinking outside the box. Spend your money on It Follows. On You're Next. On The Cabin in the Woods. If we speak with our wallets, we as consumers will help push the bigger budget horror films/sequel bait of the genre towards originality. We can do this, people! So go out there, right now, and find Unfriended. Support it with the most valuable asset a consumer has, your wallet! Thanks for reading, guys. And I'll see ya next time on Enter the Movies!