A Skype Murder-Fest?


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Porsche Brosseau.

There’s a trailer floating around for a new horror flick that’s beginning to stir a considerable buzz online. It’s for a little Universal Studios production called Unfriended (originally titled Cybernatural) that kicked off strong during the Fantasia Film Festival last year. While it’s not slated for release until April, Unfriended is already making serious waves with its trailer–which, according to horror fans and film critics alike, might usher in a new style of filmmaking for the genre.

If you lacked the nerve to actually finish watching, it’s okay, we forgive you. Here are the bare bones you need to know:

A girl drinks too much at a party and is sexually assaulted by a group of her peers. The acts are videotaped and posted online, and before long everyone at her school is slut-shaming her. She kills herself and proceeds to enact her ghostly revenge on six unsuspecting peers during their Skype conversation on the anniversary of her death.

A Skype conversation, you might ask? That’s right. The film stakes its claim as being the first horror movie to take place entirely on a computer screen.

Depending on your taste, this is either a clever new approach or a cheap exploitation of sensitive material to get a jump out of people. It will either shock you with an innovative and socially-relevant narrative, or it will feel like watching someone over their shoulder while they web-surf for roughly 90 minutes.

Truth be told, all of this is coming from a film critic who hasn’t even seen the movie yet. That being said, a closer examination into this trend of filmmaking and subject matter can help cast light on whether or not this whole “inventing a new genre” hullabaloo really has a leg to stand on.

Horror flicks have always employed transgression and subversion to earn their scares, and the inclusion of technology is hardly a new phenomenon. But combine all of this with the “found footage” filmmaking that’s taken off in recent years, and we have an entirely new set of circumstances to consider.

While the found footage medium dates all the way back to the ‘80s with the lesser known Cannibal Holocaust, it really edged its way into public consciousness with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. We all remember the film–though it’s hard to believe that it’s been more than fifteen years since its release–since it would forever change the potential for budgeting and conceptualizing horror films.

The genre slept quietly, but in the late ‘00s its dormancy was forever shattered. New digital-video technology made it easier than ever before to create found footage films and a slew of similar releases soon followed in the wake of the original mock-doc. Given 2014’s Into the Storm and the upcoming Project Almanac, found footage films can be seen in genres beside horror and it doesn’t seem like we’ll see the last of them for some time to come.

As with any emerging trend or imitation game, we have the good, the bad, and the ugly. Cloverfield, released in 2008, blasted the found footage scope to epic proportions while still staying true to the claustrophobia and tension of smaller scale productions, like the following year’s epic haunt Paranormal Activity. Both films revitalized the genre by reinventing it in some way, but an endless recycling of Paranormal sequels isn’t going to bring anything new to the table (except for more money, of course).

Let’s not even get started about contrived train-wrecks like Inner Demons or The Last Exorcism: Part II, which have proved that hopping on the cliche bandwagon without substance is sure to be a disaster.

A big reason why found footage horror movies either scare us or fail miserably in the process has everything to do with their subject matter. In this respect, it becomes necessary to address the plot around which everything revolves in Unfriended: a rape/suicide that poses an all too uncanny resemblance to the Steubenville case, which has made headlines over the past three years.

From the trailer, we can tell that the Universal film has no qualms with tackling such a sensitive event–its depiction of a teenage rape/suicide documented via social media is an undeniable nod to the same events that happened in Steubenville, Ohio. These events are far from off-limits creatively, but the question remains: is the film trying to provide any meaningful commentary on the case, or simply exploit its notoriety?

Only time will tell. Most likely, audiences will either be totally offended by Unfriended‘s use of traumatic crimes as a springboard, or they’ll revel in the fact that bullies are being forced by wronged spirits to stick their hands into the whirring blades of a blender (yes, this actually happens).

Subject matter notwithstanding, the film’s new narrative approach and technology factor stand at the crux of why Unfriended is receiving so much attention. It’s the first horror film to take place entirely on a computer’s desktop, which is a novel and new concept. Admittedly, it looks like it’ll be pretty damn scary.

But the hype around spawning a new genre out of it… I can’t say I’m thrilled with the idea. Sure, it’s an engaging medium when it’s fresh, but how many more movies would we really want to see that take place entirely over Skype, Instagram, or Facebook?

If Unfriended ends up scaring us shitless, it’s because we’re encountering something new and we don’t know what to expect. It’s the same reason why audiences loved The Blair Witch Project or the first Paranormal Activity. But if other films try and imitate its success, they’ll become little more than caricatures of what was once a genuinely good idea.

How does a good horror movie scare and compel us in the first place? It keeps us guessing. It’s the same reason why we are subconsciously allured by morbidity, why we rubberneck at accidents, why we are drawn like helpless moths to the idea of death. But as soon as that very curiosity becomes twisted into an overused cliche, its power diminishes completely.

If Unfriended does create a “social media found-footage” genre, then it better start finding out ways to reinvent itself fast, otherwise the whole thing will become stale quicker than you can Skype connect.