I’m about 9,000 book and movie reviews behind at the moment. Last June, my husband fell down some steps and ended up having to have emergency knee surgery. The recovery was long and complicated and kind of threw us both off our games for the rest of the year.
I’m not going to try to catch up completely, partly because a lot of the movies I saw are ones that have already been reviewed six ways to Sunday, like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which were excellent, by the way). But I am going to try to hit a few of the things I saw or read that I really enjoyed and that you might’ve missed.
FOR EXAMPLE: These two horror movies, which have a couple of interesting things in common, making them great choices for your next horror movie double-feature date night (I’m just assuming everybody else is having those; I’m married so I watch movies with my cats). Both are about teenagers, and both take a fairly age-old horror movie plot and turn it into something fresh. Of the two, I liked Unfriended better, which puts me squarely opposite most film critics and people with actual taste, but after you read my enthusiastically nerdy review of it below, I think it’ll make more sense.
It Follows opens with a scene designed to suck the audience right in, and man, does it ever work — a young woman fleeing her house in a panic, driving to the beach, calling her father to say goodbye, and then being found dead the next morning. Opening scene: I salute you. Play on!
From there, we switch focus to another young woman, Jay, making out with a guy she has a terrific crush on (Hugh). They have sex, she artfully ponders a flower, and the next thing she knows, she’s waking up tied to a wheelchair, Hugh looming and crazed in front of her. He explains that he’s been suffering from a deadly curse he could only rid himself of by passing it on via sex, and she’s all, “I’m sorry, what?” (wait, once more with feeling: “I’M SORRY, WHAT?!”).
He explains: he’s been cursed with an entity that can only be seen by those who have been afflicted, one that takes on the appearance of various people and then follows him everywhere he goes, plodding along slowly in standard horror-movie easily-outrunnable-but-still-aaigh! monster manner. He knows if it ever catches him, he will die (I’m not clear how it then gets passed to the next person, by the way, but let’s not overthink this).
After a couple of weeks of terror (tough guy), he’s sorry to report he just couldn’t take it anymore (wuss). And since she was trying to get into his pants anyway (charmer), she was basically asking for it (jerk). Sorry, Jay (more jerk)! But hey, you can just have sex with someone too and then it’ll be their problem (sociopath).
In essence, it’s like the worst STD imaginable. The rest of the movie is about Jay trying to deal with the emotional complexities of having to choose between dying herself or potentially cause the death of someone else. Talk about making the old horror movie trope “sex = death” about as literal as possible, right?
But this film actually goes a little deeper than that makes it sound. It’s not so much a fable about the dangers of premarital intercourse as it is about the intimidating specter of growing up (which certainly is aptly described as “plodding”). Okay, that may be a stretch, but still: this film is extremely effective and thoughtful, and it’s also incredibly creepy in places. Overall, though, while I appreciated and enjoyed it, it’s not a film I’m likely to watch again.
Unfriended, on the other hand, was so utterly fascinating to me, film-making-wise, that I’ve already watched it twice and can’t wait to do it again.
This one takes the old horror plot wherein a group of teens humiliate a peer and pay the price for it –think Prom Night, Carrie, etc. — and bumps it squarely into the modern age. The camera is focused on a single location for the entire film: the computer screen of the main character, Blaire, as she watches stuff on YouTube, browses the web, and interacts with her boyfriend and pals via text and video chat.
As the friends log on to Skype with each other one evening, they notice a stranger has joined their call, the standard “no photo uploaded” avatar hanging out on the screen. At first, they think it’s a glitch and they hang up and try again. But no — it’s still there.
Then both Blaire and her boyfriend Mitch get a strange message from an old friend, Laura Barns, the girl whose suicide Blaire was watching on YouTube as the movie began (it’s the first anniversary of her death).
As the story progresses, we learn that the group of friends had been involved in posting another video of Laura a little over a year ago in which she was recorded while passed out drunk, having either gotten her period or crapped her britches (I wasn’t clear which, but I think probably the latter). That video ended up online, and the reaction from her so-called “friends” was brutal. Humiliated, she ended up shooting herself, also on camera (kids these days), the next day at school.
The mysterious avatar finally reveals herself — and it’s coming from Laura’s old account. It seems to, in fact, BE LAURA. The kids go bananas. She tells them she wants to play a game, “Never Have I Ever,” in which each person puts up five fingers, and lowers a finger if they are guilty of the action described. Examples: “Never have I ever had sex.” “Never have I ever turned my friend into the cops.” “Never have I ever spread a rumor about Blaire.” With each revelation, the group of friends increasingly turn on each other. And meanwhile, they are also being killed off one by one by some mysterious (entity?) that drives them to commit suicide, just like they drove Laura to.
Now, granted, there is nothing even remotely unique about this plot. As previously noted, the revenge story is as old as the teenage slasher genre itself, and the “people forced to play murderous shame-game” thing is too (Truth or Die, e.g.). One of the things I’ve said many times on this blog is that once you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, as I have, it starts to become really, really hard to impress (or scare) you (me). That genre in particular seems plagued by unoriginality — not just because the same stories get told and retold, but because the same storytelling techniques are often recycled over and over until they lose their effectiveness (found-footage, for example).
Telling an entire story using only a computer screen is something I’ve never seen done before, though, and it is masterfully done here. Multiple platforms are used to build out the backstories at play, from websites about ghosts making contact from the afterlife, to online videos, to photos on Facebook, songs on iTunes, and chat. This could’ve made things difficult to follow, especially when multiple windows were open, or a lot of text appeared on the screen. But every time there’s a moment when you’re unsure where to put your eye, something happens that successfully orients you — a video starts, something flashes, a sound boops, the cursor moves over a line of text.
I found that element of this particularly fascinating, because as someone who develops multimedia online trainings as part of my day job, I’m constantly thinking about ways to keep a user focused on the right onscreen element. And another thing I do for a living — in fact, I co-wrote a journal article about this last year — is think about the best ways to gather and/or present information to people on computers. Which platforms are right for what activities? Which techniques work best for a specific audience? What is the best way to convey this type of information for that group of people? In my work, this is about the dissemination of information related to substance abuse research, but the more I thought about this film after seeing it the first time, the more I found it remarkable to consider this movie in that context. The way that, in some ways, effective dissemination of information is not that different from “storytelling.”
Both of these films get an A+ from me, but Unfriended is by far the more innovative of the two, even while it’s also the clear loser in terms of actual plot. I highly recommend both, and if any of you guys have seen Unfriended in particular, I’d love to hear what your reaction was. If I’m wrong that this has never been done before, definitely correct me, because I’d love to know what I missed and then go un-miss it.
It Follows: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Unfriended: Shelley Henning, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki
[Amazon Video: It Follows (streaming rental) and Unfriended (purchase only; try your local public library!)]