Given the preponderance of low-quality found footage horror movies, I think I was justified in being skeptical when the ads for Unfriended claimed that the film was a great new innovation in the horror genre. While certainly not groundbreakingly original, Unfriended mostly lives up to the hype, using the audience’s familiarity with technology and the frustrations of communicating over it to create plenty of suspense around a compelling, if melodramatic, story.
Unfriended focuses on seven teens meeting up for a Skype session on the anniversary of a friend’s suicide. The girl, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), killed herself after a video of her behaving badly and passing out at a party is posted online, resulting in a flurry of cyberbullying by her classmates, including her friends. When Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) logon to discuss upcoming social plans, a mysterious Skype user is attached to their group chat. Meanwhile, Blaire and her boyfriend Mitch start getting private Facebook messages from Laura’s account. After they can’t hang up on the mystery user, they suspect that it’s their friend Val (Courtney Halverston) messing with them, so they add her to the call. When passive aggressive IMs begin to pop up and the situation escalates, the group realizes that the mystery caller isn’t a computer glitch or a prank. Rather, he or she has trapped them in a deadly game, planning to take them out one by one, revealing their darkest secrets first.
The story has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, thanks to real life instances of tragic bullycides, and it pairs this social anxiety with the conventions of a teen slasher movie. The new twist, however, is that the action all takes place on Blaire’s computer screen. The audience sees her IM with her boyfriend, Skype with her friends, check emails, watch videos, Google things, and so on. The only space where we see the actors is in their boxes on Blaire’s Skype window. I thought that this technique would get old quickly, but I actually found it fascinating. The items on Blaire’s desktop were a new sort of set dressing, as her bookmarks, file names, music library, etc. gave information about her life and her personality. She reads the feminist blog Jezebel, but also, troublingly, thought it was attractive when Mitch playfully threatened her with a knife (an instance of foreshadowing so blatant it’s painful). The use of the technology as a framework also played on the frustrations of using the internet to communicate in a way that built the suspense. Persistent notification sounds put me on edge. The sketchy internet worked to obscure faces or black out at seemingly critical moments. Or Blaire’s multiple open windows would cover the action happening on Skype. Then there’s the suspense of seeing the “…” or “Laura is typing” when someone is responding and you don’t know what they’re going to say. These details were mundane enough that they connected with my own life, adding to the drama and suspense on a visceral level. I do not think I’d want to see a ton of movies filmed this way, but it was done well here and was fun to watch.
I wonder about the R rating on the film and who the intended audience is. While my friend and I, both well past the age of high school cyberbullying, enjoyed the movie and chuckled a lot at the teen drama, it seems like the movie would resonate most with teenagers. If the film intends to work in some way as a cautionary tale against bullying, the R rating may keep out many of its prime audience members. I can imagine a version of the film that would pass the PG-13 mark without compromising the suspense or the story.
At 82 minutes, Unfriended is tightly structured, entertaining, and novel enough that I enjoyed examining the details. The ending feels like a bit of a cop out, and I think writer Nelson Greaves narrowly misses sending a message about confessing and living with your mistakes, instead signaling that public shaming is the worst punishment. But, the overall experience was a lot of fun and pretty scary too. 4/5 stars.
Unfriended was written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Leo Gabriadze. It runs 82 minutes and is rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens.
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