Although there’s about a dozen horror movies in my watchlist and I only picked these two at random, they evidently complemented each other perfectly.
In line with the growing trend of found footage and documentary-style horror flicks ever since the groundbreaking, at the time, Blair Witch Project, both Unfriended and The Visit follow a similar motif.
Except Blair Witch Project was original and scary as hell; I normally don’t get queasy nor do I jump at loud noises, but I watched this in a theater and loudly gasped several times throughout the shaky cam shots.
These two, however, not really scary; just… meh.
But hey, allow me to let you judge for yourselves:
Let’s start things off with feature #1, a movie obviously intent on getting with the times and targeting millennials who live their lives on their tablets and computers. (Literally. I mean it. These characters actually forget there’s a thing called the phone, which, aside from the texting and selfie function, also allows you to actually talk to people – you know, when you need help, for instance?)
[obligatory spoiler alert]
At least I should be thankful that this isn’t, as the title would suggest, a film about someone who’s suffered the humiliating punishment of being unfriended on facebook (the horror!) and seeking vengeance for the intolerable shame.
Rather, it’s all about a dead girl who exacts revenge on her former friends by driving them to suicide, much like they forced her to take her own life by posting a very embarrassing video of her, and does so by mysteriously re-activating her social media accounts and weaking havoc on the group’s video chat.
What’s actually interesting about the movie, somewhat adding to the feeling of urgency, if not the actual scary factor, is that it all happens in real time; it also happens entirely on the main protagonist’s computer desktop – a Macbook, natch.
Blaire’s night begins innocently enough, on a sexually charged skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitchell. (Is the heroine’s name an homage to the film that gave birth to the genre, by any chance?). They quickly dismiss a couple of unsettling hints as to what’s about to follow – a message by the deceased Laura Barns, who committed suicide exactly a year before, a link to a weird message board about how to respond to messages from the dead – and go about their chat, which shifts between iMessaging and Skyping.
Sexy time is interrupted when their friends join in although neither Blaire nor ‘Mitchie’ invited them, and they have themselves a nice little 5-way chat going. When they notice a sixth person in the conversation (no profile picture, no video feed), they spent quite some time trying to get rid of him/her, hanging up and starting over, and naturally getting increasingly annoyed at the intrusion. The mysterious stranger must obviously be a skilled hacker who makes it impossible to remove from the chat, and is actually using the dead girl’s account. When Ken, one of the five friends, later tries to get rid of the intruder by sending the rest of the group a virus-removing software, it only seems to work momentarily, and further angers the already pissed off stranger.
Figuring that Val (another girl they seem to hang out with although no one actually likes her) must be behind this, they skype her in, but she denies any involvement.
Soon enough, the weirdness intensifies, with embarrassing pictures popping up on facebook, seemingly posted by one of friends, and bitchy comments texted to each other via skype, none of which initiated by any of the 6 participants.
The angrier they get with each other, the more they are inclined to direct their rage towards the stranger in the conversation, who’s now using the dead girl’s email, skype and facebook accounts. There’s also some obligatory trash-talking about the dead girl herself, just so we know what a bunch of assholes these guys are, but Blaire reluctantly defends her. While she navigates the various windows on her screen, it becomes evident that out of everyone in the group, she had been relatively close to Laura. It also becomes clear that the constant window-switching is going to give me a headache.
Things escalate quickly, with a lot of shouting between the six, when whoever is behind all this starts revealing each friend’s involvement in the events that precipitated Laura’s suicide, beginning with Val’s awful text to the girl, telling her to “kill urself lol“, because of course it’s okay to saw awful things to someone if it’s immediately followed by LOL, right?
Not only does the stranger reveal these secrets to the group of friends and even posts them for the world to see, but she also begins to exact her revenge, as the rest watch it all unfold on screen.
Val, the last person to enter the conversation, is the first one to go, even though she’s the only one who has the good sense to call the cops on this sadistic prankster. Although they all see not only Val lying next to a bottle of bleach, but also the cops actually arrive on the scene, with the police scanner code audibly flagging this as a suicide right before the screen turns black, the rest of the group basically just process this by means of a minor 1-minute-freak-out and then go about their business, yelling at the intruder to go. Because of course, that’s how you react when your friend drinks a bottle of bleach while you’re skyping and drops dead.
However, the stranger has other plans for the night: a game of ‘Never Have I Ever’, but instead of drinking, the loser dies. Fun! At this point it’s safe to assume that whoever is behind all this is actually Laura’s vindictive ghost, somehow possessing their devices, out to punish those who drove her to suicide.
We also get to see the video that caused the ridicule and hate-comments (because the ghost forces the friends to watch it on youtube, disabling the ‘close’ button), showing her wasted, lying face-down on the ground, her pants covered in her own feces. Yep, I’d be pretty mad too. Then again, I’m not stupid enough to get black-out, shit-in-my-pants drunk, so there you go.
One by one, the friends are forced to admit the ways in which they’ve wronged not only Laura, but also each other, and one by one they meet their gruesome demise, which is especially disgusting (and creative!) in the case of Ken, who sticks his hand inside a blender, and Jess, who sticks her curling iron in her mouth. Ouch. Adam merely shoots himself in the head, and now it’s down to Blaire and Mitchell. Mitchell soon bites the dust as well, shoving a big-ass knife into his eye.
And incredibly, through all this horror, not one of them picks up their cell phone, let alone the landline, to call for help. They were perfectly happy to talk on the phone with each other when they were trying to install the software that would get rid of the skype intruder, but now it somehow never even dawns on them to use it. No one leaves the house, either; everyone’s parents are also conveniently nowhere to be seen, because of course.
The ridiculousness reaches a whole other level when Blaire tries to reach a random stranger on chatroulette (!!!) and have them call for help and send the cops over at her friend’s house. Okay, seriously, wtf? Your phone is right there, woman! I honestly can’t get over how stupid this is.
So now it’s just Blaire, sobbing and begging for forgiveness, trying to remind Laura of their friendship by showing her their shared facebook photos (how would we remember who are friends are without facebook at this point, amiright?), but then we see the end of the video, which, for a surprise twist, is quite predictable, seeing as Laura’s plan would obviously be to leave the best for last: it was Blaire behind the camera all along, looking smug – gleeful, even – at exposing her old friend’s mishap for all to see. Uh oh. The entire video is quickly posted, prompting a barrage of hate comments, now directed at Blaire.
And then the laptop is closed shut, the screen goes dark at Blaire’s, and the last thing we see is Laura’s face lunging at the camera.
Okay, what did we learn from this nonsense?
On the positive side, the interaction between the kids is pretty realistic (aside from not freaking picking up the phone, that is), and the real-time style of shooting, which lets us follow Blaire’s frantic navigation of her computer screen, helps put outselves in her shoes and right in the moment.
… aaand that’s about it for the pros, I’m afraid.
Take-aways from this movie?
Kids are mean, but bullies get their comeuppance in due time, Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye style. Such a lovely, wholesome message, isn’t it?
There are other ways of communication besides Facebook, Skype and iMessage. Use them. Or you might die, apparently.
More importantly: don’t get so drunk you end up pooping in your pants and passing out. Your friends shouldn’t have to die because you can’t hold your liquor. Don’t drink, kids. Seriously.
Then again, your friends shouldn’t post embarrassing videos and make fun of you. But they wouldn’t have if you hadn’t gotten shitfaced.
What else? Oh yeah: watching a movie that takes place in its entirety on a computer screen switching between windows is really hard on the eyes. Now not only did I waste 2 hours of my life watching this drivel, I also have a splitting headache.
Thanks a lot, Unfriended.
Who knows, maybe feature #2 will be better?
This one definitely looks more promising: true, M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have basically sucked since his first – and only – success with Sixth Sense, but The Visit is also produced by the makers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious (neither of which I actually enjoyed, but at least they seem popular enough among horror fans and ranked high by critics and viewers).
The entire film is shot documentary-style, which means we’ve now switched from trying to read the text on Laura’s computer to shaky cam shots. I’m definitely going to need painkillers tonight.
Teenaged Becca decides to film her and her little brother Tyler’s first visit to their grandparents, whom they’ve never met before, as her mom had a falling-out with them 15 years ago (but refuses to tell her children what actually went down). The trip is actually the kids’ way of giving their mother some alone time with her boyfriend to enjoy a Caribbean cruise, and of course it’s their chance to finally meet their Nana and Pop Pop and visit their mom’s childhood home.
Okay, for starters, these are pretty phenomenal kids to actually volunteer to spend a week at their grandparents’. Uncharacteristically great for a couple of preteens/teenagers. Then again, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill horror-movie kids: Becca is too well-spoken for a 15-year-old girl, and she’s the antithesis of the oft-used slutty, vain teenager cliché, indicated by the fact that she never looks at herself in the mirror. Tyler is a germaphobe with a lisp and a penchant for wigga-style rapping, each of his rhymes ending with the obligatory ‘ho‘. We later find out, through another uncharacteristically grown-up brother-sister conversation, that all these quirks were caused by their father’s abandonment of the family. Well, except for the rapping. I don’t think anyone in the history of psychiatry has ever linked abandonment issues with bad rhymes. Oh, he also decides to shout out pop singers’ names instead of cursing, because somehow yelling “Shakira!” or “Katy Perry!” is preferable to “oh f*ck”.
Anyway. Again, spoiler warning.
Off Becca and Tyler go on a train to some obscure rural Pennsylvania town, where they are received by their grandparents and taken home for the week. Everything seems to be running along smoothly at first, despite their cell phones getting no bars, their ridiculous 9:30 pm bed time, and their grandmother’s irrational obsession with having Becca clean the oven all the time. They’re definitely on the creepy side, but eh, old people, whatchagonnado, right?
The kids explore the house and its surroundings, and we get the a couple of scary moments that turn out to be red herrings: playing hide-and-seek under the house turns into a terrifying experience when they realize they’re not the one ones hiding under there… but look! It’s just grandma scaring them. Odd sense of humor, that Nana. Tyler is hell-bent on finding out what secrets Pop Pop is hiding in the barn. He sneaks inside, approaches the ominous-looking trash receptacle, opens it…. and yuck, it’s full of disgusting shit-smeared diapers. What is it with the excrement theme tonight?
Things start to get unsettling when they hear strange noises at night. Looks like their 9:30 curfew signals Nana’s party time, as she runs around the house like a banshee on crack. Pop Pop takes the ‘party time’ expression literally and gets all dressed up for some imaginary costume party. Their grandparents are quick to explain the general weirdness: Pop Pop is incontinent, but he’s a proud man so he hides his little ‘accidents’, which he later probably burns out in the field in a crappy (haha) bonfire. Also, old people just get confused sometimes. Nana suffers from ‘sundowning’, which is a kind of dementia that happens after sunset. Googling the term leads to actual information on the various manifestations of Alzheimers, so I’ll buy it.
Meanwhile, Nana does love to bake, so there’s plenty of oven-cleaning for Becca. She’s also a sloppy cook and spills some batter on the kids’ laptop, which conveniently lands on the webcam, and Becca’s cleaning attempts (with oven cleaner, of course) result in a very distorted image of the kids when they next try to skype their mom, who’s enjoying her boyfriend’s participation in a ‘hairy chest competition’ on her vacation. What kind of cruise is this?
A couple of times during the week some friends’ of their grandparents show up at the door, but Becca and Tyler tell them they’re not home. Both times the visitors comment on how they missed them at the hospital (where their grandparents volunteer as counselors), but this oddly doesn’t raise any red flags.
When Becca tries to interview Nana for her documentary and asks about the incident with her mother, Nana gets very agitated. Pop Pop isn’t acting too normal, either, attacking random strangers on the street because he thinks they’re following him. Later he’s found by Tyler with a gunshot in his mouth, but he claims he’s just cleaning it (!). Well, that’s a cleaning method I’d never heard of before. Nana’s night adventures become even more terrifying when she screams into the camera they hid in the living room to capture the crazy and then makes her way to their bedroom and starts pounding on the door.
When the kids see the footage, they realize Nana was trying to kill them (this escalated quickly!), and quickly tell their mother to come get them because their grandparents are obviously wackjobs. Becca’s managed to fix the webcam by now, so when Tyler points it towards Nana and Pop Pop their mom can clearly see them.
Okay, we may have gotten to a slow start by the ball’s really rolling now. The twist is not exactly shocking, but here goes: we were all expecting that this weird behavior was either the cause of their mom’s running away at 19, or the result of their grief over not seeing their daughter in 15 years, right?
Wrong. The mom sees the two old people and tells her kids “These are not your grandparents“. None of us is surprised, by the kids are really freaking out. At least the mom has enough brains to call the cops in this movie, but this hick town has an incompetent police department and it’s closed.
Meanwhile, the grandparents decide to play a board game, but not before the kids glimpse a figure hanging from a tree in the yard (it’s one of the real grandparents’ friends who visited earlier).
Things go downhill from there pretty fast: Becca goes down to the basement and sees a bloody hammer and her real grandparents’ corpses. As if it’s hard to put two and two together already, Pop Pop follows her down there and explains he and Nana knew about their upcoming visit because they were patients at the mental hospital the real grandparents volunteered at, so they just murdered them and took their place. He chases Becca into her room, but she manages to break the lock and escape.
Meanwhile, it’s Nana’s ‘sundowning’ time. While she’s busy scaring the crap out of Becca, Pop Pop is terrorizing Tyler. What could be more terrifying to a germaphobe than having a shitty diaper shoved in his face? Yeah, again with the poop theme. For some reason (well, it’s already established that he’s batshit crazy – excuse the pun – so does he need one?) Pop Pop also pulls his pants down and goes to stand in front of the fridge as a petrified Tyler looks on. That shitty diaper really did a number on him. All the while, Nana is chasing Becca, who eventually breaks a mirror and stabs Nana with a shard of glass, because of course, let’s revisit the mirror plot point. Nevermind that we’ve spent quite some time just trying to decipher shaky-cam shots of what is essentially Nana acting crazy and Becca being scared and not reaching for any one of the objects in the room to use as a weapon, or at least to defend herself. Becca goes down to the kitchen, manages to pull Tyler out of his frozen state, and unleashes him onto the insane Pop Pop: Tyler charges the old man and repeatedly smashes the refrigerator door against his head.
As a very anticlimactic conclusion, we finally learn what happened between the mom and her parents: they disapproved of her decision to run away with the kids’ father, so she hit her mother when she blocked the door trying to prevent her from going; her dad hit her, so she ran away and never returned their phone calls. Okay, seriously? That’s the big secret? And what kind of person doesn’t talk to her parents for 15 years because her father slapped her for being a brat?
The sappy ending sees Becca finally looking into a mirror while she’s brushing her hair; having heeded her mom’s advice to let her anger towards her father go, she includes the previously banned footage of their old happy family times in the documentary. Tyler performs a little ditty as the credits roll, including a couple of verses about how it took two Dove bars to feel clean again after the shitty diaper incident.
Although definitely better from Unfriended, both in terms of story and production value (despite the low budget), as well as performances, this is a far cry from the amazing twists we had come to expect of M. Night Shyamalan since Sixth Sense (and which were always a let-down, as was this one). The movie took a long time to pick up the pace and was very uneven, with an almost boring first half and an increasingly scary second part that, sadly, wrapped up the horror before it even began.
The shaky cam, documentary style didn’t add to the horror effect at all – rather, it takes away from it, forcing the viewer to either squint or keep from blinking in case we miss part of the action. It’s like a badly shot fight scene: we can’t even tell what’s going on, so it’s more exasperating than it is scary.
Take-aways from this movie?
Well, for one thing, wanting to run away with an older guy at 19 is a perfectly valid reason to get slapped by your parents, and a ridiculous reason to not speak to them for 15 years.
More to the point, what kind of mother sends her children off to her estranged parents’ without even talking or checking in with them during the week-long stay? The story could have worked just as well with the real grandparents, driven crazy with grief and seeking revenge on their immature, ungrateful daughter.
This entire movie is the kind of thing that could be easily avoided if the mom wasn’t freaking stupid.
Finally, no matter how good their intentions were, choosing not to tell their mom that her parents are wackjobs earlier was just retarded. So really, it could have been avoided if the mother wasn’t stupid, but also if the kids hadn’t inherited the stupid gene.