My notes on the social media-themed horror film. NB: slightly spoilery.
In my notes on the sleeper hit Unfriended I wrote ‘I can guarantee there’ll be a dozen imitations or parallel efforts in the next year or so’ … I was thinking that there would be more films appropriating the narrative format (a mock computer screen capture mutation of the found footage format), but this turns out to be a conventionally filmed version of the story of Unfriended, albeit with a menace who owes less to the Heathers than to the many grudge-holding, ring-toned spooks who flooded in the cinemas (and crawled out of TV sets) in the J-horror boom of the early 2000s. Shot in South Africa by a mostly German crew – co-writer-director Simon Verhoeven is the son of Michael Verhoeven (director of The Nasty Girl) and Senta Berger (star of ‘60s fare like The Testament of Dr Mabuse, Major Dundee, The Quiller Memorandum and The Spy With My Face) – with a mostly-American cast, it has a slightly ‘off’ atmosphere in its version of the sort of American campus (and nearby derelict industrial area) seen in US genre movies.
Nice girl Laura (Alycia Debnam Carey, final girl of the decent Where the Devil Hides) accepts a friend request from Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers) on a not-quite Facebook social media platform – becoming Ma Rina’s only friend, and subject to a barrage of links to creepy goth animations (which, in my universe, would get the unloved outsider way more likes, hits and FRs than just being a good student) and stalkerish, insistent pleas for attention. When Laura is pressured by her gang of superficial friends not to invite Marina to her birthday meal, the girl hangs herself over a fire at an unknown location and uploads the footage – entering limbo/the internet through her laptop (which functions as a witch’s ‘black mirror’) and haunting Laura so that she will learn all about being lonely. In supernatural slasher movie fashion, Laura’s closest mates are killed by the ghost (in a lift, in hospital, in a fall, etc) and the clips are uploaded to her profile as if she were sharing them, which means she haemorrhages friends and is so cursed she can’t even log off or delete her profile. Investigating the mysterious Marina’s past, Laura finds Ring-like tragedy and abuse have turned her mean … while there’s effective mythical mumbo-jumbo about witches, black mirrors and gaining superpowers through a specific type of suicide. Hokey as it is, the mystery element is nicely-layered – with clues embedded in Marina’s animations and drawings (even her choice-of made-up name is relevant, since her origin involves an abandoned mill-works).
Though the basic set-up is overfamiliar, a fresh and unpredictable element is thrown in by the rivalry between Laura’s handsome, rich, slightly thuggish boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley) and techier torch-holder Kobe (Connor Paolo) for her attention. There’s a nice moment as Kobe finds rune-like changing sigils in computer code that represent the curse and is slightly appalled that Laura doesn’t even know enough IT to be freaked out by it … and a major kink in the finale as he realises there’s a very simple way to avoid becoming collateral damage in a curse directed at someone else (on the principle that Laura can’t be lonely if she’s dead). There are the usual amount of jump scares, blatant but well-timed enough to get a cheap scream, and Carey manages to make something out of a thinly-written heroine role. I can see a few bits of business catching on (the breaking-up of forenames as online handles is cool). Co-written by Matthew Ballen.