Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

An urban legend and a novel mockumentary

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2016

I wrote three reviews for Cinema Axis’s coverage of this year’s Blood in the Snow film festival.

Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser star in CAPTURE KILL RELEASE

Capture Kill Release (directors: Nick McAnulty & Brian Allan Stewart) may be yet another found-footage horror movie in a world that doesn’t need any more of them, but at least it’s a good one. Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser shine in this tale of a young couple making their own snuff movie. This is what House of 100 Eyes could have been had it been done right.

It wasn’t really my thing, but I heartily recommend Holy Hell (director: Ryan LaPlante) to all fans of outrageous, over-the-top, Troma-style gross-out horror-comedies. LaPlante stars as a mild-mannered priest who takes up the path of holy vengeance after barely surviving a night at the mercy of a clan of twisted, depraved freaks. If nothing else, where else are you going to find a gun battle between a man of the cloth and a drag queen in a kitten mask?

The Sublet (director: John Ainslie) finds an engaged couple with a toddler son taking up residence in a creepy apartment with a sinister past. This modern-day riff on The Haunting of Hill House gets a lot right, including a fine performance from lead actress Tiana Nori, but the story fails to come together in a satisfying way, and the film feels like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

Mr. Jones

At least it will be better than whatever Paranormal Activity movie is releasing later this month, and that’s worth something, right?

United States. Directed by Karl Mueller, 2013. Starring Jon Foster, Sarah Jones. 84 minutes. 4/10

I’ve just about had my fill of found-footage movies. There might still be things a filmmaker can do with the format to make his or her seem fresh and vital, but nobody seems to actually want to do these things. It’s become this decade’s answer to the ’80s slasher film: a formula to make cheap and easily-franchisable movies that don’t have to actually be very good to appeal to the target audience. Mr. Jones might be better than the ruck and run of these, but that doesn’t make it much more satisfying.

Filmmaker Scott (Jon Foster) and photographer Penny (Sarah Jones) move to the proverbial cabin in the woods, ostensibly to make a poorly-thought-out nature documentary, but really to work on their relationship. Then they discover that their neighbor may be “Mr. Jones,” a mysterious outsider artist who sends scarecrow-like sculptures to random recipients. So they decide to make a movie about Jones instead, except the more they find out the creepier it all gets, until it turns out they’re way in over their heads…sound familiar?

Okay, so it’s not entirely a cheaper, non-union version of Blair Witch but you should see the resemblance. Now, Blair Witch works because it gives us enough development to make its characters relatable without making them too distinct, and enough mythos to tantalize the imagination without spoiling the mystery. You’ve seen that Cracked video about why we all love Groot, rightBlair Witch works because the Blair Witch is Groot.

On the latter point, writer/director Karl Mueller probably overdevelops the mythos a bit too much but it actually is really intriguing and creepy. As for the former point, that’s where things get interesting. Mr. Jones begins with Scott delivering what feels like a five-minute-long monologue about his life entirely consisting of “what if?” questions, mostly pointing to a degree of self-loathing and the piss-poor state of his relationship…

…which, I gotta say, I never really felt; for most of the film, there’s no tension between Scott and Penny that I didn’t think was standard tension caused by being characters in a found-footage horror movie. But for the most part, Mueller bends over backwards to establish Scott as the sort callow, self-absorbed millennial who feels the urge to videotape every single moment of his life.

In fact, I began to wonder if Mueller intends Mr. Jones to serve not just as a Blair Witch-esque found-footage horror movie but a commentary on them, or at least on the Scott-type characters that seem to populate them. Certainly Scott is the only character Mueller seems interested in as such; despite a spirited and lively performance from Sarah Jones, Penny only seems to exist in the film in relation to Scott. That may put us way out of Bechdel Test territory, but it’s not entirely inappropriate if the point is to define how self-centered Scott is.

Unfortunately, not even this interpretation of the film (and I have actually no reassurance I’m not just pulling this all out of my ass here) actually makes it any better. Once the exposition-heavy first act finishes, two tiresome extended scenes (the warren and the storm) that desperately need trimming dominate the rest of the film…not to mention a lot of repetitive dialog. Indeed, for a good fifteen minutes, almost everything that Scott and Penny say seem to be variations on the same fundamental sentence.

Mr. Jones isn’t an entire waste of time, but its fascinating mythos and occasional genuinely creepy scene aren’t enough to redeem its flaws. Still, it is almost certainly better than whatever Paranormal Activity movie is releasing later this month, and that’s worth something, right? Right?

MR. JONES poster

Creep

This is ordinarily the sort of movie I loathe, and yet I found myself really liking it. Why?

United States. Directed by Patrick Brice, 2014. Starring Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice. 82 minutes.

Seriously? Another found-footage horror movie? Do I have to watch this one? Do I, Mom?

I do? Sigh.

Well…this one’s a Blumhouse joint. (BH Tilt, specifically.) I’m not about to say the Blumhouse name automatically indicates quality; I’ve seen too many Paranormal Activity sequels to make that claim. (And I’m awfully skeptical about this Martyrs remake, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.) But they’ve released enough interesting stuff that I’m willing to say I trust Jason Blum’s instincts.

So:

Creep stars Patrick Brice as Aaron, a videographer who’s responded to a Craigslist ad posted by a man named Josef (Mark Duplass, of the Duplass brothers). Aaron’s job is to spend the entire day following Josef around, recording what he does. Josef has good news and bad news. The good news is that his wife is pregnant with Josef Jr.; the bad news, that Josef has inoperable brain cancer. The video that he and Aaron make together serves as a message to his unborn son.

Now, if you’ve seen more than six movies in your entire life you probably find yourself thinking, “Y’know, I bet this Josef fella isn’t quite what he seems.” I know that’s what I thought. And boy howdy! Was I ever right! Josef starts acting creepy behavior pretty much the minute Aaron arrives at his cabin, stripping down to take a “tubby” for the camera (get yer mind out of the gutter, “tubby” means “bath”) and prancing around as his lupine alter ego, Peachfuzz, complete with a wolf mask about seventy-seven times freakier than necessary to make its point. And that’s just the stuff he does in front of the camera. His behavior becomes more extreme as the day turns into night, and just keeps escalating day after day.

On the surface, Creep seems so incredibly banal, I couldn’t figure out how it could possibly work. As a director, Brice exhibits very little style; this ain’t the prettiest movie to watch, but at least it does manage to look like it was filmed by someone mostly used to filming weddings and graduations. He relies on jump-scares to an excessive degree, or should I say Josef relies on jump-scares to an excessive degree, as one of his hobbies seems is, well, jumping out and trying to scare people.

Nor does the writing promise all that much. As a writer, Brice–that’s right, he also wrote the film, along with Duplass–doesn’t seem much interested in genuinely surprising the audience. There’s no possible way Josef could ever be anything other than a complete weirdo, and Aaron receives so little development he might as well just not be there.

So far I have told the truth to the best of my ability in this review; it is now time to shock the shit out of you and reveal that I have rated Creep 7 out of 10. This is ordinarily the sort of movie I completely loathe, and yet I found myself really, really liking it. Why? Simple: Mark Duplass. He brings something to Josef that completely makes the film work. I liked Josef, even when he got weird. Hell, I think I liked him more the weirder he got. And more importantly, I wanted to believe him even after I passed the point where I should have stopped trusting any sequence of words coming out of his mouth.

I admit, it’s a flimsy thing to hang a review of a film on, and I don’t entirely feel good about doing so–I feel like I should be more objective, more analytical. Maybe if I’d watched Creep on another day or in a different mood I would have hated it.

All I can say in summary is that life’s like that sometimes.

CREEP poster

The Phoenix Project

Scientists work to bring the dead back to life in this thoughtful science-fiction drama reminiscent of Primer.

United States. Directed by Tyler Graham Pavey, 2015. Starring Corey Rieger, Andrew Simpson, David Pesta, Orson Ossman. 92 minutes.

In 1816 a young woman named Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin spent a summer in Switzerland with her fiancée and two friends reading ghost stories and challenging each other to create their own tales of the macabre. Godwin spent the next two years developing her story into a novel, which she published two years later under her married name, Mary Shelley. She named that novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Her work cemented the animation (or reanimation) of dead tissue as the proper vocation of the archetypal mad scientist.

The four scientists of Tyler Pavey’s The Phoenix Project–team leader Perry Frank (Corey Rieger), biologist Devin Fischer (Andrew Simpson), engineer Ampersand “Amps” Garner (David Pesta), and Perry’s assistant/protégé Carter Watts (Orson Ossman) share a goal with Frankenstein: they want to bring things that are dead back to life. The similarities don’t end there: while Perry doesn’t seem “mad” in the sense of most mad scientists, he exhibits an obsession, an affinity for the unorthodox, and a disregard for authority which often brings him into conflict with his teammates.

He also possesses a hubris similar to Frankenstein’s, continually insisting that the Project qualifies only as pure research for its own sake with no goal of a practical application. In other words, he wants to do it simply so he can prove he can. This doesn’t sit quite well with Devin, the closest thing Perry has to a rival for alpha-dog status amongst the team, who has his own motivation for involvement.

Small and intimate, Pavey’s film plays out almost like a documentary about the Project; indeed, the team videotapes their work and occasionally comments on it, on the assumption that the footage will prove useful to those studying their breakthrough. This sets the tone and mood for the film, making the finished product less of a horror film than one might assume. That doesn’t mean that Pavey entirely eschews horrific elements; indeed, the film’s tragic final scenes are fraught with dark implications. But even then, Project is more thoughtful than scary.

Ultimately, the subject of The Phoenix Project is what drives people to take on ambitious, paradigm-shattering projects like bringing the dead back to life. White it doesn’t quite qualify as a character study, it focuses on its characters with a laser’s intensity. That puts more pressure on the cast to perform than a more style-based production might. The roles require an odd kind of chemistry, as while their relationships don’t entirely qualify as friendships (save for that between Perry and Carter) but possess an intensity not often seen between co-workers. By and large, the ensemble rises to the challenge, with Simpson and Pesta standing out somewhat as the most complex, relatable characters.

The Phoenix Project isn’t everybody’s cup of tea: its stylistic simplicity doesn’t engage the viewer on the visual level. The tone is often cold, giving one the sense that Tyler Pavey has not so much directed a film as grown one in a lab. (And on a completely personal level, the characters’ white-bread hipster-ish-ness annoyed me: seriously, who would name their son “Ampersand?”) But, ultimately, the film works well as a specimen of thought-provoking science fiction in the vein of Primer.

THE PHOENIX PROJECT poster

The Gallows

Another found-footage movie we didn’t need

United States, 2015. Directed by Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing. Starring Reese Mishler, Pfiefer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford. 81 minutes.

The world may not exactly need another horror movie about mean, unpleasant teenagers picked off one by one by an unstoppable, possibly supernatural antagonist, but Blumhouse (the low-budget production house behind the InsidiousThe Conjuring, and Sinister franchises) gives us one anyway. In The Gallows, a trio of high-school friends run afoul of a murderous force while trying to sabotage a revival performance of a school play whose previous run, twenty years earlier, ended with the accidental death of the student in the lead role. It’s not too hard to work out where things go from there.

By no objective metric can The Gallows be considered a “good” movie. The attentive viewer can spot every plot beat five minutes before it actually happens. The script keeps character development to a minimum even by the standards of films populated entirely with stock characters: when one of the protagonist can’t put together a more imaginative put-down than “Hey drama nerd!” you know you’re in trouble. The second-act twist strains credulity (it is almost impossible for the character to not have the piece of information it depends on him not having) and the third-act twist, while not impossible, is highly unlikely in chronological terms. In this context, the film’s entirely extraneous found-footage format turns out the least annoying thing about the film.

Yet even despite these flaws, I have a hard time describing it as “bad” even though I certainly did not like it. There is an audience out there for slasher-type movies loaded down with jump-scares and populated with characters the viewer actively wants to see die. A certain minority of this audience might even do so sincerely. The gaggle of teenagers who shared the theater with me certainly seemed to believe that every scare, no matter how slight, was worthy of a blood-curdling shriek.

Plus, the principal cast of twenty-something actors who look almost, but not quite, young enough to be actual high school students–Reese Mishler, Pfiefer Brown, Ryan Shoos, and Cassidy Gifford playing characters named (you guessed it) Reese, Pfiefer, Ryan, and Cassidy–sell the material for more than it’s worth. If the filmmakers mean for the latter two to have any redeeming traits whatsoever, nobody bothered to tell Shoos and Gifford–and I have to admit, if somebody can make me loathe completely fictional characters this much, that’s some sort of accomplishment.

For that matter, the same can be said for writing-directing team Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Much like the later installments in Blumhouse’s tentpole Paranormal Activity franchise, The Gallows is a mediocrity but it’s a well-directed and well-edited mediocrity, with the jump-scares executed with textbook precision and a surprising amount of atmosphere wrenched out of its modern high-school setting. (The one issue I have here is the point of exactly when the main camcorder dies and the students start filming everything on their cell phones. For that matter, I’d like to know why they start filming everything on their cell phones.)

Neither good enough to be good nor bad enough to be bad, The Gallows has one saving grace: it offers numerous opportunities for the audience to scream at the characters how stupid they are. But don’t approach it looking for a “serious” attempt at horror.

Review originally published by Cinema Axis.

The Midnight Swim

An existential character study examining the relationships between three estranged half-sisters and their late mother, mostly showing instead of telling.

United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.

Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.

The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).

Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.

However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.

Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.

That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM poster

The House with 100 Eyes

The makers of The House with 100 Eyes may intend it as a meta-satire, but if that’s the case, they’ve not done a good enough job of making it clear.

United States. Directed by Jay Lee & Jim Roof, 2013. Starring Jim Roof, Shannon Malone, Larissa Lynch, Liz Burghdorf, Andrew Hopper. 75 minutes.

Two and a half years ago, I saw a movie called The House with 100 Eyes at the Chicago Horror Film Festival. The story of Ed (Jim Roof) and Susan (Shannon Malone), a married pair of serial killers who produce snuff movies under the banner Studio Red, it was a curious mix of found-footage and torture-porn. (If you want the tl;dr version of this review, go read my write-up of the festival.) I was a bit surprised to see it, after all this time, showing up on Artsploitation Films’ roster of summer 2015 video releases.

When I first saw it, I felt it had potential, but it also had a lot of problems. That hasn’t changed. Roof delivers a clever and insightful script that explores the sexual underpinnings of Ed and Susan’s relationship and individual psychoses, along with some social commentary. The major performances are all strong, the highlights being Malone and Larissa Lynch (as Final Girl and prospective victim Jamie). Roof is the loudest and most flamboyant, but he never goes too far over the top. Even Liz Burghdorf and Andrew Hopper, in cannon-fodder roles as (respectively) Jamie’s anxious friend Crystal and cocky boyfriend Clutch, are better than one might expect.

The problems largely come in the form of the direction, by Roof with Jay Lee (Zombie Strippers!Alyce Kills) and cinematography. The found-footage format gives filmmakers a narrative device to explain footage clearly shot on consumer-grade cameras, but it comes with a caveat: the director, cinematographer and editor (likely the same person filling all three roles) must make certain that they compose and present every shot as if it were really happening. (Or at least, that’s how I feel: the acclaim for The Taking of Deborah Logan, which prominently features much footage that the camera crew wouldn’t have been able to get, proves this isn’t a universally-held opinion.) And it’s this element of the film that provides the most problems.

The most obvious example is the film’s approach to nudity: there simply isn’t any. Most of the time, the offending bits are just blurred out. That’s an odd approach to take to a film like this to begin with–a horror film whose setup specifically includes the victims lured into a trap on the premise that they’ll make a porn video–but it gets weirder when it’s time for the characters to actually Do the Deed. The blurring doesn’t do much to disguise the briefs Clutch obviously wears while he’s supposedly naked (and never mind that you can see several unblurred glimpses of them at a couple of points).

That’s just the most obvious example of the conceit failing. There are others: Ed instructs Jamie to take her top off for the camera, but the shot remains an ECU of her face while she does so. Hidden cameras abound throughout the house (the “hundred eyes” of the title); all the better to provide “behind-the-scenes” footage, but they pick up odd angles. For example, a cam installed in the shower aimed at the tops of occupants’ heads. (If you’re making a snuff-porn movie, what would even be the point of that?) Audio distortion makes its way onto the soundtrack seemingly at random, and at one point, a gunshot seems to deafen a camera’s microphone.

It’s possible that Roof and Lee intend The House with 100 Eyes as a meta-satire à la Funny Games, that the “mistakes” are not only intentional but part of the point of the entire enterprise. I don’t expect filmmakers to spoon-feed me everything, but if that’s indeed the case, I don’t feel Roof and Lee have done a good enough job of making it clear.

THE HOUSE WITH 100 EYES poster

Dark Mountain

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

United States. Directed by Tara Anaïse, 2013. Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, Shelby Stehlin. 80 minutes.

About twenty minutes into Dark Mountain, one character turns to another and asks, “Are you afraid this will turn into The Blair Witch Project?” I kind of admired that. Dark Mountain is an obvious shameless rip-off from its first scene, which is Heather’s iconic “apology” sequence from Blair Witch without all the snot. I appreciated that director and co-writer Tara Anaïse was willing to fess up to that.

Lord knows there’s little else to admire or appreciate about Dark Mountain. It is, essentially, the mean average of every lackluster found-footage horror flick made since the industry fired up the bandwagon in the mid-to-late ’00s. (Trust me: I’ve seen AtrociousHollow and most of the Paranormal Activity sequels, so I know what I’m talking about.)

I wish I could keep the Blair Witch comparisons to a minimum, but I honestly don’t see how I can do that. Two-thirds of both films’ plot is functionally identical. The main difference is that instead of being set in a creepy fictional Maryland forest, Dark Mountain takes place in a spooky real-life Arizona mountain range.

The character outlay is the same: ambitious female aspiring documentarian bossing around two male techies who aren’t as emotionally invested in the idea. We get a scene where the characters interview the eccentric…I’m not sure they’re locals per se, but whatever the Superstition Mountains equivalent of a local would be. We get a scene where weird sounds happen outside a tent. We even get a scene where the Heather-figure (she has a name, but good luck thinking of her as anything other than “fake Heather”) runs around screaming another character’s name.

Okay, not every idea in Dark Mountain comes straight out of Blair Witch. For example, fake Heather and fake Josh are an item here. And everybody shoots video on their mobile phones, and Anaïse digitally processes the footage to make it look like it’s supposed to look like the characters shot it on a Super 8 camera in 1967. I’m not entirely sure why she does this, since the characters make no bones about the fact that they’re recording the footage on their phones. Maybe she thinks it looks cool. It kept pulling me out of the film and reminded me I was watching a work of fiction, which is the one thing in the world a found-footage movie must not do.

And…okay, there was the Lost Dutchman mythos, which, as I think I said earlier, is a real-life thing that wasn’t invented for the movie. Google “Superstition Mountains” and “Lost Dutchman Mine” after you watch Dark Mountain (or, better yet, instead of watching Dark Mountain). There are some very cool ideas in those legends, ideas that would make for a pretty groovy horror film. Then weep, for Dark Mountain is not that horror film.

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Seriously, don’t bother.

Dark Mountain poster

 

Unfriended

A fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags.

United States. Directed by Leo Gabriadze, 2014. Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead. 83 minutes.

If there’s a horror story hoarier than the tale of the wronged teenager taking revenge on his or her tormentors, then I haven’t heard of it. But at least screenwriter Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze found a new way to tell it: they present the film as screen-capture footage of a MacBook desktop and Skype sessions.

Of course, that’s not to say that they’ve managed to find a twist on the story or character types, the latter of which includes seeming “good-girl” protagonist Blaire (Shelley Hennig), her beefcake boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), Mitch’s bro-ish bestie Adam (Will Peltz), promiscuous blonde Jess (Renee Olstead), chubby hacker nerd Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and brash, obnoxious Val (Courtney Halverson). They’re very tight, considering they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

One evening, they’re all Skyping when they start receiving mysterious Facebook messages from Laura (Heather Sossaman), the seventh member of their posse. The catch? Tonight is the first anniversary of her death. She committed suicide after an unknown individual posted a video to YouTube of her making a drunken ass of herself at a party. Maybe it’s Laura’s ghost or just some sick fuck pretending to be her, but whoever it is, you just know they’re eventually going to pick off the characters one by one.

While the filmmakers occasionally subvert teen-horror expectations (pay very close attention to who reacts to what during the extended game of Never Have I Ever that takes up the latter half of the film), the story is familiar and so is the structure. Very little here will surprise you. What makes Unfriended worth watching is the presentation.

The filmmakers use the format in ingenious ways, to build attention, to dole out backstory. When communicating in chat windows, the messages Blaire chooses not to send–typing out and deleting–tell us more than the messages she actually sends. Gabriadze keeps the pace taut, lean, and highly effective. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the film scary–I couldn’t take the kill scenes seriously, they were too cartoony–it is reasonably tense. Everyone puts in a good performance, especially Hennig and Storm. And I appreciated the film’s ultimate moral about the evils of cyber-bullying.

None of this takes away from the fact that, once again, it’s time to sit back and watch some unpleasant teenage assholes scream at each other and get it in the neck. And believe me, these jerks go out of their way to make sure you loathe them. Every question the film poses at its beginning turns out to have the most obvious answer imaginable.

Overall, Unfriended is a fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags. I doubt it will wow anyone the way Behind the Mask or Hatchet did, but I suspect it will have some rewatch value and find a decent following in the future.

It is, however, a bit of a one-trick pony…which means I’m not particularly looking forward to the inevitable sequel.

Unfriended poster