“Unfriended” isn’t a great movie — it arguably might not even be a good one — but there’s something going on here that is worthwhile, a stab (pun intended) at a different kind of storytelling.
The film, written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Levan Gabriadze, is a basic vengeful-ghost horror tale. But it’s not the story itself that’s particularly intriguing. It’s the way it’s told: completely on a high-school girl’s computer screen. Unlike some fake found-footage films that purport to be told only on cell phones and laptops, only to abandon the conceit as soon as a different point of view is needed, “Unfriended” goes all in: Be it by way of Skype, text messaging, Google, Spotify or Facebook, every frame takes place in real time on the computer screen belonging to Blaire (Shelley Hennig).
At the start of the movie she is looking at video, seemingly captured by a cell phone, of her friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committing suicide after particularly cruel cyberbullying. It’s the one-year anniversary of Laura’s death.
Soon she’s joined online by her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) for some flirting that never really goes very far before they’re joined in a group video chat by their friend Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam (Will Peltz).
But there is someone else there, too, only no one knows who it is — he or she is represented by a blue box, with no photo or name or other identifying information.
Then Blaire starts getting Facebook messages from Laura. She assumes it’s Mitch playing an insensitive prank, but it still freaks her out a little.
And then a lot. Everyone else starts getting messages from Laura in one form of social media or another (in a nice nod to an analog world, a printer even comes into play). Laura, or whoever or whatever is behind this, controls their computers, so that anti-virus software and simple power buttons are useless. Ugly secrets are revealed, or rather dragged out into the open, with kicking and screaming (and screaming and screaming).
Eventually things get deadly, with the in-and-out reception of online video acting as a strobe effect — seeing bits and pieces of horrific events makes them scarier than they would be seen in straightforward fashion.
And indeed, it would be disturbing if something that you counted on every day to simply work like it’s supposed to, just stopped working. Scandalous photographs won’t delete. Facebook friends who can’t be “unfriended.” Frozen Skype video screens that may not be frozen at all, and might instead be the helpless corpse of someone you once cared about. It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always inspire pure terror, but the sheer inventiveness of Unfriended’s gimmicky scares are always entertaining, if only in their construct.
But it’s in the moral grey area that Unfriended really embeds itself, taking aim at a brand new form of socially acceptable cruelty and firing kill shot after kill shot. The characters in Unfriended are just the sort of self-obsessed young a-holes we’ve all met at one point in our lives, full of judgment and lacking wisdom. They raise our ire but also eventually our pity, as their superficial preoccupations become their desperate undoing. They want to live in public but free from scrutiny, even while they take advantage of everyone else’s online vulnerabilities. And for that, Unfriended argues, perhaps they really should be punished.
Parents play no role at all (as was the case in the far superior “It Follows”). It’s like a wired version of the Peanuts gang, if Charlie Brown were to star in a horror movie. This is essential, given the copious amounts of shrieking and screaming that go on.
It’s interesting to think how the film will age, given the short shelf life of technology. In two years all this might seem as dated as a dial-up modem, technology not nearly advanced enough to support the action here.
And yet, it’s that very attitude that Unfriended takes towards its own victims that Unfriended is actually condemning. For all its goofy gimmickry and crowd-pleasing “boo” scares and dumb jokes, the disturbing relationship the filmmakers have with their own argument is genuinely horrifying, pushing what could have been just a fun time at the movies into a more complex and satisfying territory. It’s like being locked in a room with someone who hates you and might just want you dead, who gradually forces you to admit that you deserve their judgment. And that’s scary as hell.