Unfriended (2015), Friend Request (2017), and the Value of Committing to Your Gimmick

The recent German horror import Friend Request was always going to suffer unfavorable comparisons to its found footage American predecessor, Unfriended. Not only was the film originally titled Unfriend in its German release, but it also follows a plot about a group of morally flawed teens who are hunted through social media from beyond the grave by the vengeful ghost of a peer they bullied into suicide, just like in Unfriended. Although it generally has been met with shitty reviews and an ocean of eyerolls, I quite enjoyed Friend Request as a modern slice of digital schlock. It’s in so many ways a conventional horror film that just happens to graft itself onto themes of social media-era technophobia, but those are two aesthetics I generally have a fun time with, so the proposition of that formula isn’t such a raw deal for me. The film’s comparisons to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, did the film no favors, however. By stripping Unfriended of its defining found footage gimmick & applying its same story to a more formulaic horror aesthetic, Friend Request illustrates just how silly & ineffective that Blumhouse-produced modern classic could have been if mishandled. You can’t fully appreciate the tonal miracle of Unfriended‘s social media horror achievements until you see the film cheapened by Friend Request, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as committed to their shared gimmick.

The thing I love most about social media horror & thrillers of the 2010s is the way they document the mundane details of what modern communication actually looks like. Unfriended‘s structure as an 80 minute “real time” conversation via Skype, framed from the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop, could not be a more perfect vessel for that kind of internet-age time capsule. An unseen laptop operator clicks from program to program (Facebook, Skype, music players, meme generators, creepypasta forums, Chat Roulette, etc.), simulating the exact experience of communicating in a groupchat circa 2014 (give or take a murderous ghost). Friend Request is much looser in its social media documentation. Before its various kill scenes start bloodying up the screen, the film does pay a lot of attention to what scrolling through a “Facebook” timeline looks like (it’s actually a generic knockoff of Facebook, but the effect is the same). The plot is advanced through timeline-scrolling montage, with attention paid to mundane functions like cover photos, “liking,” “friending,” etc. When the killer Facebook ghost starts tormenting her main victim with video posts of their friends’ suicides, the film also lingers on details like error messages, deleting posts, disabling accounts, etc. The traditional ghost story narrative structure of the film (as opposed to Unfriended‘s found footage structure) prevents it from capturing too much of the 2010s social media zeitgeist past that, though, as only a few stray details can make it to the screen between kills.

Fully committing to the social media gimmick does more to distinguish Unfriended from Friend Request than just in terms of memorable novelty & capturing a cultural time capsule; it also makes for a genuinely eerie movie-watching experience for the audience. Watching a story unfold on a laptop screen feels real to our own experience browsing the internet (whether or not we’re idiot teen bullies who deserve to be murdered by a vengeful ghost). This verisimilitude extends to the frustration of pop-up ads, lagging, and desire to control the mouse cursor ourselves in a way that builds genuine tension between each supernatural kill. Stripped of that gimmick, Friend Request struggles to find ways to make the 2010s social media experience scary. Instead, it looks to generic, haunted house-setting horror movie scares to build that tension, constructing its kills around the mirrors, baby doll parts, woodland settings, and swarming bugs we’ve seen so many times before. Without that tension, the movie’s technophobic scares amount to something much sillier than what the (playful, but effective) kills that Unfriended achieves. When the Facebook ghost is revealed to be employing “demonic” code that transcends our 1’s & 0’s or when the laptops themselves are designated as being evil, dark magic objects that must be destroyed, the film can only be appreciated as a goof. Thankfully, it knows how silly it’s being and makes room for lines like “Unfriend the dead bitch!” in its porn-tier dialogue.

Friend Request isn’t completely devoid of fresh contributions to the social media horror genre. Its criticism of the way we curate the image of our lives & are fake-polite to strangers for attention online isn’t anything new, but I did find some fascinating detail in the way it overlaid images of characters’ faces in their device screens along with their timeline scrolls, as well as the way it made the concept of having absolutely zero friends on an outline platform seem eerie & bizarre. Mostly, though, the film is fun as a campy, internet-age lark and an illustration of just how well-mannered Unfriended‘s own social media horror aesthetic is handled. Unfriended‘s full commitment to its found footage social media gimmick is more impressive in terms of craft, more useful in terms of cultural documentation, and more effective in terms of delivering traditional horror scares through fresh, innovative devices. I can only recommend Friend Request as a delightfully dumb slice of internet age schlock. The more fully-committed Unfriended, on the other hand, is essential viewing, one of the more significant horror canon entries of our time.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

The Belko Experiment (2017)

When we were praising the sci-fi fantasy superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. series last year, one of the things that most impressed me on the rewatch was just how much the Disney-owned Marvel Studios was able to reign in writer-director James Gunn’s nastier tendencies. There’s certainly a sense of tragedy & trauma hanging in the air above Guardians that’s missing from a lot of Marvel’s more whiz-bang blockbuster productions, but it’s far from the gleefully horrific cruelty of other James Gunn creations like Slither & Super. With the follow-up to that surprise 2014 hit approaching this summer, however, it’s actually kind of endearing to see Gunn return to the cruelty of his smaller, meaner works in his latest-produced screenplay. Released by the kings of cheap, but effective horror in the 2010s, Blumhouse Productions (who’ve recently had big enough hits in both Split & Get Out that they could probably just coast for the rest of the year), the Gunn-penned exploitation piece The Belko Experiment finds the once-restrained prankster shaking off the Disney cobwebs and returning to the gleeful brutality that defined his career before he was a widely-recognized name.

The poster for The Belko Experiment plainly promises a “Office Space meets Battle Royale” genre mashup and that five-word descriptor might as well serve as the film’s IMDb plot synopsis. A Columbian office building staffed with mostly foreign, English-speaking workers is shut down by mysterious, off-screen forces who prevent escape for the employees trapped within by barricading all doors & windows. The imprisoned population is instructed over an intercom to murder thirty of their own coworkers within a certain timeframe or sixty will be killed as punishment. Non-compliance means that participants’ heads will be exploded by a remotely detonated bomb. Of course, grabs for power arise within the group as former bosses attempt to pull rank among their now-equal employees and “fire” them with the aid of the security guard’s firearms. Our hero (10 Cloverfield Lane‘s John Gallagher Jr.) attempts to put an end to this disgusting, brutally violent mode of corporate ladder-climbing early & often with rationalized pleas for peace, but the killings continue anyway. As the experiment goes on it becomes apparent that no character, no matter how harmless or affable, is safe from being murdered in cold blood and that this is the kind of nihilistic exploitation exercise that deliberately avoids any possible chance of a “happy” ending.

This high-concept premise makes The Belko Experiment out to be something like a bloodier, corporate-set version of the recent sci-fi cheapie Circle. It initially traffics in the same social science philosophy in rationalizing who “deserves” to survive and what makes one life more “worthwhile” than another (youth, parenting, wealth, etc.), but honestly that’s far from its #1 concern. Mostly, Gunn just tries to have fun with his eighty or so archetype characters that populate the Columbian office building setting by strategically ending their lives for maximum comedic shock value. It’s clearly a video game-style premise, with explicit rules & objectives set by an off-screen gamemaster, but the film does manage to squeeze a few good corporate satire jabs out of the format. I was especially tickled by the way the basic concept of productivity quotas & metrics that drive capitalist enterprise were translated directly into lives lost in the film’s ridiculous dog-eat-dog fight for survival. There are some Trump-like platitudes about how to survive in the business world like, “We have to be bold here. This is not a time for timidity,” and some music choices like an elevator-friendly, Spanish-language version of “I Will Survive” that also got a good chuckle out of me. The Belko Experiment excels when it jokingly focuses on its fictional company’s eerie slogan, “Business without boundaries,” and in other jabs at corporate office culture, but not so much when it asks big questions like whether it’s best to futilely attempt to save everyone or strive for the seemingly more attainable goal of just saving yourself.

My one major problem with The Belko Experiment seems antithetical to what I thought made Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy film so enjoyable: it’s just not cruel enough. This is a bloody film with a ludicrously high body count and, yet, it seems to be shy of practical effects gore. If you compare the violence in this film to the recent superhero bloodbath Logan, the kills have a weightless frivolity to them that I think undercuts the film’s nihilism. The only time The Belko Experiment attempts to get truly grotesque in its gleeful ultraviolence is when one character’s skull is caved in with repeated blows from an axe. The cuts in that scene are rapid, though, only briefly flashing the consequences of the axe’s blows before shying away to focus elsewhere. If the film’s nihilism is supposed to mean just as much as its satire of office environment power structures, it makes no sense to shy away from the physical consequences of the violence in this way. The movie proudly displays plenty of blood. It was just lacking in viscera.

Maybe that one sticking point for me was a result of The Belko Experiment‘s allowance of gun violence to enter the scenario. Its office supplies murder weapons (including tape dispensers, letter openers, meat cleavers, Molotov cocktails, etc.) made much more interesting, grotesque kills. The film could’ve easily pushed the novelty & brutality of its high-concept scenario much further by sticking to that set-specific limitation. Still, The Belko Experiment was a decent exploitation exercise in all its own bloody-but-not-gory glory. If nothing else, it’s great to see James Gunn’s sick sense of humor return to the screen unfiltered and, given the current hard right shift of our political climate, a violent corporate culture parody might be the exact kind of mildly satirical schlock we need right now.

-Brandon Ledet