Is the Unfriended Gimmick Growing Up or Going Stale?

It should be no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this site than I’m a massive fan of the 2015 found footage cyber-horror Unfriended. That Blumhouse production has become an exceptionally useful touchstone when describing my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, which exploits the average user’s vague understanding of the mechanics of the Internet for easy, eerie scares of the unknown. Shot from the POV of a laptop screen, where all images & sounds are generated by applications like Skype, Facebook, and Windows Media Player, operated by an unseen user, Unfriended is the epitome of the Evil Internet cyber-horror. Its full-on dedication to its commanding gimmick both creates an eerie recognition in its audience of what daily life online looks & feels like (give or take a vengeful computer-ghost) and preserves that cultural experience in a user interface time capsule in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare. As was inevitable, this once-fresh, of-the-moment laptop interface gimmick has since been assimilated into more consciously diluted works. For years, I’ve been taken with Unfriended-style documentation & exploitation of user interface horror in trashier genre fare: the way Sickhouse recreates The Blair Witch Project in Snapchat posts; the way Nerve turns online games like Pokémon Go into voyeuristic horror shows; the way #horror finds unexpected terror in the sugary inanity of emojis & CandyCrush, etc. These shamelessly trashy tactics have shown no sign of slowing down in the lower dregs of genre cinema, but 2018 has seen a major change to the Evil Internet user interface horror that I was dreading: my preciously guarded subgenre is gradually going mainstream.

Curiously enough, you can detect this dilution of the Unfriended gimmick even in Unfriended 2: Dark Web, the film’s recent sequel. The usual tactic of sequels to low-budget, high concept horror curios is to avoid redundancy by pushing the original premise to a greater extreme (even if only in extremity of gore). Dark Web shies away from that challenge and instead makes its central conceit more palatable for the average moviegoer. Like in the first Unfriended film, a group of online teens in a shared Skype chat are terrorized by forces beyond their control, held hostage before their monitors at the threat of death. Instead of an all-powerful computer ghost threatening their lives, however, the kids of Dark Web are tormented by a vast network of powerful lurkers on the dark net – real life, evil reprobates who can seemingly hack into anything electronic to dispose of their victims. In any other context, that would be a preposterous, over-the-top premise for a horror film. As a follow-up to the computer ghost hauntings of the first Unfriended film, however, it feels like a conscious toning down of a supernatural conceit some audiences felt went too far. Dark Web is likely a far better gateway film to appreciating the gimmicky cyber-horror genre as a result, but its dilution of the Unfriended premise’s supernatural horror makes it less distinct or useful as an isolated example of that genre. The first Unfriended bests its sequel in its audacity to reach beyond the real-life limitations of the internet by melding the technological with the supernatural. In its own references to the dark net’s ties to ancient mythology and in its villains’ deployment of impossible identity-obscuring glitch software, Dark Web teases notes of supernatural forces at work in its online hostage crisis, but those aspects of the conflict mostly amount to go-nowhere intimidation tactics used by its in-the-flesh cyber-criminals. It’s almost as if the movie were too embarrassed to fully commit to those supernatural conceits, and it feels all the weaker for it.

Any nitpicking complaints I may have about Unfriended: Dark Web are likely a result of my too-high personal esteem for the genre territory it echoes without expansion or evolution. Ultimately, it’s a solid Evil Internet technohorror that might even be a boon for the genre in its potential to reel in new fans. I cannot say the same for the recent hit cyberthriller Searching, which outright apologizes for the trashiness of the user interface horror as a concept in its (successful) bid to reach a wide audience. In Searching, John Cho plays a single, widower father using context clues from his missing daughter’s laptop to investigate her disappearance. The film uses the same tactics & efforts pioneered in Unfriended to tell its Lifetime Original-ready story, but with an added layer of cowardice. Afraid to allow the audience to search for their own point of focus as its twisty story unfolds, the film directs the eye by zooming in to make active cursors & text boxes take up the entire screen, as if it were worried that the grandma in the back of the theater’s eyesight would prevent her from following along. This affords the film the patina of a TV commercial for an operating system, which isn’t surprising given director Aneesh Chaganty’s background as a tech bro Google employee. The film’s cowardice extends far beyond its advertising aesthetic & lack of commitment to its user interface gimmick too (which it also cheats on by incorporating news footage & Google Maps graphics). Searching is a thriller that’s afraid of danger. It teases threats of what parents fear their kids might be up to online (gambling, hiding sexual affairs, drug trade, secret identities) but then defangs each danger seconds after introducing them to reinforce that “The kids are alright” & the Internet is a tool for Good just as much as it is a tool for Evil (if not more so). This should be a genre that preys on the eeriness of life online, but here plays like a tech-friendly advertisement. It’s cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical fearmongering by turning it into a safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Basically, it’s Unfriended for the corniest of suburban parents, an embarrassment to the user-interface cyberthriller – and its being met with the greatest praise the genre has seen to date.

I’m not entirely against Unfriended user interface horrors evolving & maturing in less gimmicky, more respectable corners of indie cinema. It’s a mode of filmmaking I believe could be useful in any modern-set film’s toolkit, as evidenced by recent films like Eighth Grade & Ingrid Goes West that depict troubled protagonist’s emotional unraveling through their immersion in Instagram feeds. The Instagram scroll set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in Eighth Grade is especially striking, layering imagery into a beautifully eerie cyber psychedelia that stands out as one of the year’s most distinct cinematic Moments. That Instagram immersion & the film’s mood-setting YouTube tutorial videos don’t comprise the entirety of Eighth Grade’s visual or emotional substance, but rather serve as just one tool in its arsenal, ready to be deployed when helpful. It’s in this way that trashier genre fare like Unfriended has become useful in its influence. It was once gauche to heavily incorporate user interface imagery in a proper movie, but the trash-horror soldiers have since laid the groundwork at the frontlines to normalize & develop that tactic. For Eighth Grade or Ingrid Goes West to incorporate that imagery into less genre-faithful narratives means the tactic is maturing in a useful, rewarding way that can only benefit the future of modernist cinema. What’s much less useful is when a film like Searching dilutes Unfriended’s exact tactics at feature length with wide-audience friendly sappiness stripping the original work of its riskier gambles to make its gimmick more palatable. Even Unfriended: Dark Web is guilty of this dilution, although to a lesser extent. By normalizing the Unfriended gimmick, they’re making it less distinct & notable, running the risk of allowing new, exciting cinematic territory to grow stale in familiarity, rather than to evolve the way it has in films like Eighth Grade.

My biggest fear is that all this griping about the future of highly specific genre I unabashedly love is likening me to one of those joyless Star Wars “fans” complaining about that series’ recent batch of sequels because of what they didn’t do instead of celebrating them for what they are. After all, there are still plenty of gimmicky, high-concept cyber-horrors being released all the time. Snapchat filters were recently given the horror treatment in this year’s Truth or Dare; Facebook timeless were made out to be spooky hell-rides in last year’s Friend Request; Assassination Nation just dug into the stomach-turning nausea of private data leaks just a few weeks ago; and smaller, cheaper titles like Selfie from Hell hit VOD so frequently I can’t even keep up with them. Still, I can’t help but have complicated feelings about the ways the Unfriended gimmick is being assimilated into more respectable, higher profile releases to wider critical success. It warms my technophobic heart to recognize its influence on works like Eighth Grade, only to have my heat broken when its dilution & normalization in cowardly works like Searching lead to critical praise that implies it was a broken gimmick that has since been “fixed” through a tonal sobriety. If Unfriended weren’t extremely preposterous & attention-grabbing its influence would have never leaked this far into the ether in the first place; all Searching is doing is lazily reaping the benefits. I shouldn’t complain too loudly, as that film’s critical & financial success can only mean good things for the further production of a genre I can’t help but love. I just worry that its more normalized, safer tones will risk running the gimmick stale, when it should be mutating into new, exciting possibilities in modern filmmaking aesthetics.

-Brandon Ledet

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