The Slasher in the Machine

Unfriended-2014The analogue to ‘found footage’ in fiction would be the shoebox novel: somebody drags a box out from under the bed, there’s all these clippings, let’s lay them out one after the other and thread a narrative through them. Which is to say, as Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project and the rest established in no uncertain terms, these stories are artifacts. But when Chronicle uses what would seem to be that technique—for long sequences, we’re only looking through a (telekinetically levitating) videocamera—it’s a lot less about “Hey, look, I found this old videotape, let’s plug it in, see what’s on it” and more about our point-of-view being locked in that camera (which no way can survive the crazy events), as a way not so much to document the moment as to limit our frame, ratchet the tension even higher.

Yes? I haven’t done all my reading on found-footage, and would imagine there’s a large grey area between “is” and “isn’t”—and who cares about angels on a pinhead anyway—but I do know that, say, Paranormal Activity is found-footage, while stuff like Silent House, which tricks us into thinking this is found footage when really it’s just a sustained scare technique, probably doesn’t count.

All of which leaves me at Unfriended, which is kind of wrapping Smiley and The Den into one extended, claustrophobic, bloody rollercoaster ride of a Skype session. But, whereas The Den was definitely recording these video chats, and I suspect Smiley was as well, Unfriended is straight streaming . . . and even that’s the wrong word; ‘streaming’ suggests some media passing from server to client. This is more like the Jetsons on the phone (where our frame is the limits of a single monitor/caller). But, the crux, for me, it’s that Unfriended, despite all the loud infighting and cry-faces, isn’t some Blair Witch artifact found languishing in the waste basket of someone’s operating system, waiting there like that VHS tape in The Ring.

No, Unfriended, all evidence of it—save the bodies—it’s as erased as anything ever gets on the internet. And that changes the stakes in some way, I think. I mean, with that shoebox novel I was talking about, the big part of the thrill, it’s blowing the dust off this lid, reeling through the years, getting your voyeur on, right? There’s a sense of transgression with Paranormal Activity: you’re watching people in their most intimate moments. And you are in Unfriended too, of course. But, now, instead of them existing in some past, at a definite remove from you, you’re right there in the moment with them.

In a way, it almost makes you complicit.

And I think that’s a good dynamic. It’s a canny escalation for found-footage to be taking. Or, if not intentional, it’s a lucky escalation. Either way we benefit, especially if or when we cue in that, while we’re whispering to these stupid kids the whole time to just get off their devices, we’re the ones who are glued to the device they’re being played on. It’s as if we’re the stupid characters who won’t just simply close their laptop.

I like it.

And, Unfriended, it gets me wondering what was the first of these cautionary tales about the internet, about being connected 24/7, about how safe it feels walking down dark digital corridors, and how quickly that safety can be ripped away. Was it Feardotcom, back in 2002? Probably not, but that’s the first one I remember, anyway. Whatever the case, we’ve come a long way, baby. Just when you think found footage has to be dead, a movie comes along to reinvigorate it, at least for a cycle or two. And, in horror, a cycle or two’s all you ever need.

Anyway, that this is a slasher isn’t even the interesting part of Unfriended to discuss. All the characteristics and conventions are there, no problem. What I find interesting, though, it’s how, lo these many years since the slasher first took its first bloody steps into the theater, each successive slasher seems to be Frankensteined together from bits and pieces of those that have found success before.

Which is to say, Unfriended, it feels so much like a quality update of Tamara: [spoiler, spoiler, but it’s also in the trailer . . .] wronged high schooler comes back to spit on everyone’s grave, with extreme prejudice. Just, the scaffolding this time out, it’s pure I Know What You Did Last Summer: “Did we really just run that guy over? Should we tell anybody or just, you know, keep on driving?” But perhaps what appeals the most to me (no surprise) is how many lines seem cribbed directly from Scream: “If you hang up, all your friends will die”; “We’re going to play a game” (those are each Unfriended).

But in slasherland, that kind of stuff, it’s not stealing or being derivative, it’s making the proper obeisances. It’s telling the audience that, yes, I’m just as much a fan of those as you are. I’m not pretending to be making this up from scratch.

Which isn’t to say Unfriended isn’t bring anything new to the table. In my estimation, ever since about that Prom Night remake, the slasher has been going through a metamorphosis of sorts, up to and including Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Cabin in the Woods and You’re Next. In You’re Next, the question being asked is What if the final girl were kick-ass right from the get-go, instead of having to go through this long transformation? Unfriended is playing with our preconceptions of the final girl as well [real spoiler coming up, so be wary, please], but taking her the other way, asking the more obvious question: What if the final girl is just called that because she’s the last one? The answer is a slasher that’s much more . . . I don’t know if ‘cynical’ is the right word. ‘Bitter,’ maybe? Cynical is expecting the worst, whereas bitter doesn’t even allow the possibility of redemption.

So: bitter, yes.

And that tone, that bitterness, it’s perfectly in keeping with the hot-topic issue at play in Unfriended: cyberbullying. Which is to say, this isn’t so much a cautionary tale about how much of yourself you put on line. It’s trying to correct your behavior while you’re online. And the feat of this is that it never comes across as agenda-driven or didactic. Really, it successfully engages that justice-dynamic that’s the peculiar pleasure of the slasher: the right people are dying one by one. They maybe shouldn’t have pulled that prank. These blades etc being visited upon them now, it’s just payback, pure and simple.

Even before cyberbullying was remotely possible, that’s been the message of the slasher: don’t be mean. There’s a reason it’s always the entitled kids getting it in the slasher, isn’t there? Think about it in Breakfast Club terms: if the formula holds, who dies first, right? It’s not the brain, it’s not the basket case, it’s not the criminal.

At the same time, though, we’re glad these kids do what they do, of course (or, did what they did), else we wouldn’t have this story. But, like Cabin says, the sacrifice has to be made to keep the world turning. These characters up on-screen, they’re sacrificing themselves to these blenders and guns &etc for us, to teach us proper behavior.

Another thing Unfriended brings to the table that’s pretty cool, it’s . . . you know how in fiction, you can have a word stricken through then restated right beside that (with a different word), as a trial-attorney trick for getting both words into play? Unfriended has a cool way of having someone enter something into a textarea, then hesitating (to make sure we have time to read), then hesitating some more (to be sure we’ve had time to read), and then backspacing over it, typing something a lot more watered-down. It’s a beautiful little device, and Unfriended uses it just over and over (along with it’s ‘laggy mouse’-trick, where, in order to give us time to take the whole ‘page’ in, the mouse can’t seem to find the right place to click—just when it starts to get too tiresome, though, a character calls it out, and all’s well).

The best test of a horror movie, though? It’s if if you find yourself hesitating afterwards. About getting in the front seat of that car. Using that shower. Turning the lights off. In Unfriended‘s case, picture a dude a lot like me. He’s sitting alone in the theater after Unfriended‘s over, waiting to see if Samuel Jackson’s going to cameo after the credits. Just sitting there’s boring, though, so he’s killing time on social media. And he catches something kind of vaguely critical of someone, but said pretty humorously. And his finger, it’s diving down for that Like button, that star, more to commend the humor than condemn the person, but then he remembers that pushing that button might be the wake-up call for some killer to rise from the parking lot . . .

Horror’s meant to change us. To make us better.

Sometimes it works.