9 May 2015

Angst through Sex & Skype - It Follows & Unfriended

Earlier this year It Follows opened to strong reviews and leggy box-office. 

Well, for a movie about a shape-shifting, killer STI that is.  

A sophomore venture for film-maker David Robert Mitchell, Follows commences with a sequence that establishes the piece's proclivity for eerie minimalism and celebratory nostalgia, using an unbroken 360 pan and the sort of retro-synth score propagated by last year's The Guest & 2011's Drive, to convey the aura of a creepy throwback interested in mystery and the awful potential in suburbia for suppressed horror. Unfortunately the feature doesn't evolve much beyond its inspired bow, elevating sub-text to flat text, failing to sketch more than one compelling character and succumbing to a monotonous middle act, all basked in the electronic rays of a score more interested in reference than the gestation of fear. Despite its ambition, and intermittently inspired framing, It Follows chalks up as a bore.

Last week saw the release of Unfriended in the UK, the latest horror picture from the Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Sinister) stable. Played entirely over the desktop of High-School senior Blaire (Shelley Hennig), the picture observes a Skype conversation between friends descend into a breeding ground for terror, the ghost of a suicidal buddy emerging to haunt the digital soiree. It's unapologetically high-concept, and at a lean, visceral 83 minutes Unfriended gets business done, fast. Thematically and aesthetically the film also feels like a step-forward for horror cinema, whilst It Follows plays like a - admittedly loving - regression. Don't get me wrong, Unfriended isn't a great movie, but it is a virtuosos experiment, and one that successfully excites and pokes the audience for the entirety of its refreshingly trim running.

The films are bound because they centre on adolescent experience. On the surface It Follows might appear the more universally resonant work, courting the primal emotions and guilt which surround teen sexuality, a narrative aspect that pre-dates cinema itself. On the other hand Unfriended engages with the Millenials' wired in approach to culture, society and information. The entire picture, including diegetic score and exposition feed through wi-fi, whilst allegiances and relationships are articulated using various private applications, helping our teens to hide from the all-encompassing Skype call at the movie's core. It's interesting even when compacted into such a languid sentence, but irrefutably these aspects mark Unfriended as a prospective time capsule. Relevant to a generation or three, but doomed to the recyclables as soon as the words Spotify, ichat and Skype no longer factor into daily discourse.

Except that's not the case at all.

With its rather sensationalist but unsettling depiction of bullying, Unfriended finds genuine moral weight, and plugs it into a visually exciting fright-machine that scares and provokes in equal measure. The human characters aren't individually complex, but these archetypes are sustainable over 83 minutes. In that time, screenwriter Nelson Greaves, uses broad but sufficiently vibrant strokes to set his cast apart from each other, to convince an audience that they interpret, feel and react to terror in different ways. The sullen, unmotivated teens at the heart of Mitchell's work bleed into one, a selection of deliberately pretty-downed and insular Midwestern grumps who - for me at least – fail to project tangible empathy. Mitchell plants all of his terror into concept, whilst Greaves splits it evenly between that and character. As a result, the latter film manages to evoke a humanist bent, and left me more satisfied.

One of the biggest problems with It Follows is its slavish obsession to genre work of the 70s. Mitchell (Aged around 40, youngish for a director but schooled in life) pumps in obvious visual cues to Halloween and Jaws, whilst drowning potentially tense moments in a retro score that sounds cool on an ipod, but swallows his movie whole. Mitchell favours a much slower-burn approach to his horror than Unfriended helmer Leo Gabriadze, yet rarely takes full advantage of his indulgent, softly lit compositions, generally because the music chokes them out. Gabriadze on the other hand ties contemporary manic teenage attitudes into the very aesthetic of his movie. The lead, Blaire, never takes time to moodily style her hair or fret, instead she leaps from one form of communication to the next and combats the deathly possibility of silence with an indie playlist. Unfriended never pauses for breath, it pulls deep at the start, then shoots for the finish line. The slick execution serves the guilt-laden drama brewing between its smarmy protagonists, as things ramp toward a rapid,visceral conclusion. Unfriended is a forward thinking horror effort, representative of Ritalin-prescribed kids more likely to have Nandos than 'Nam at the root of their subconscious. 

Even the fundamental tone of It Follows lags in comparison to Unfriended. Mitchell's work replicates the Michael Myers routine, the ambling, but unstoppable force that our heroes can't ever expect to defeat. It's still a chilling idea, but the execution owes such an obvious debt to the work of Carpenter or Bob Clark, that it becomes monotonous before the first hour clocks out. The monster appears and shuffles a bit, made more interesting in that only its designated victim can see it. This offers the picture a welcome lashing of paranoia, but even that's only good for one or two sequences, before fading in order for the sub-Halloween gumption to resume. Tedium sets in fast. On the other hand Unfriended totally embraces the possibility of the internet, tapping into the social-networking facade, and calling out the lack of accountability online presence promotes. The frights unfold like a gory, punchy game of spin the bottle, but the articulation of this lost generations' refusal to face reality, hiding behind screens, adds a serious dash of intelligence to the violence. Unfriended pivots around the tension of multiple mistruths, the erosion of true friendship and aversion to flesh on flesh sexuality in the 21st century. The suspense inherent to a band of liars, willing to do anything for their lives, is practically endless.

Both works are deserving of academic excavation and engagement, but only one stands out as multiplex hit worth inhaling. Unfriended, whilst never jeopardizing its conscience,provides a nastier more immersive narrative experience, as opposed to the clinical yet cold beauty that seems to be Mitchell's utmost concern. These are ideas movies, and for that alone deserve praise, but this writer would urge you to disregard critical consensus and view both pieces with an open mind. One's an art installation fronted by a cine-literate malcontent,  the other's a roller-coaster manned by a cyber psychologist.  I know for which I'd pay again.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2015


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