For anyone who cringes at the words “found footage,” especially when applied to the recent glut of variable-quality horror movies like REC, V-H-S, Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity franchise, the idea of a scare picture taking place on, and entirely restricted to, the busily fragmented screen of a MacBook might just seem like the reductio ad absurdum of corner-cutting, visually unimaginative filmmaking. But in the hands of producer Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) and director Levan Gabriadze, the low-budget, high-concept idea behind Unfriended, in which a group of entitled, obnoxious but not entirely unlikable high school kids discover their Skype chat session has been hacked by what just might be the unsettled spirit of a dead friend who committed suicide one year ago today after being maliciously cyberbullied, proves to be an electronic gateway not only to honestly earned scares, but also to a means of examining and even critiquing the way communication is navigated and abused in the virtual age.
Which is not to try and make Unfriended sound excessively high-minded—its primary goal is to scare the shit out of anyone who has ever multitasked in front of the glowing screen of a laptop, teenagers and adults alike. And by immersing the viewer into the perfectly realized landscape of that laptop screen, where the click of a mouse, the hesitant sound of fingers at a keyboard, and even the familiar protocol of an IM session take on an eerie ambiance, Unfriended harvests chills and mounting dread better than any more conventional American horror film has in a long time. (This from someone who thought It Follows was way on the overrated side.) In Unfriended, the images transmitted and recorded by laptop cameras which represent these kids to their friends may themselves be static, but there’s wit involved in the way they electronically jerk and hesitate, refracting and briefly dematerializing the talking heads in a way that suggests the kids are already ghosts themselves. These selfie shots split and fritz to great effect when each one makes their gruesome exeunt too.
The way Gabriadze choreographs the frantic multi-window surfing adds almost unbearable tension as the movie’s ostensible lead and presumed final girl, Blaire (Shelly Hennig), begins directly communicating with the dead girl via Facebook, jumping to other sites to get advice on the pitfalls of making promises to a poltergeist or privately IMing her boyfriend, who she desperately hopes is orchestrating a very sick practical joke. (Those pop-up ads you find so frustrating during late-night surfing sessions will generate screams here.) Turns out that the safe haven of private chat groups and the relative anonymity that can give users a sense of insulation, and certainly isolation, from the world and its prying eyes doesn’t mean a whole lot when a vengeful ghost starts hacking your Facebook account, posting humiliating pictures and promising not only to reveal each of the dirty little secrets you and your friends are harboring, but also pledging that anyone who logs off the chat session will log off for real.
The plot machinations of Unfriended will seem very familiar to anyone who has survived Terror Train (1980) and seemingly thousands of similarly sketched revenge-tinged horror scenarios made since then. The dead girl, whose gruesome suicide is seen near the beginning of the movie as a YouTube post recorded on a bystander’s cell phone, offed herself after being publicly humiliated online, and of course part of the movie’s gruesome tease is in watching the layers peel away to reveal the special tortures and humiliations devised for each kid on the Skype session, Blaire included, all of whom of course will turn out to have played some role in prompting the girl’s awful demise.
But there’s also an unexpected moral force at play in Unfriended that is strengthened by its offhanded dramatization of how false security and anonymity can feed into technological bullying, and how that onslaught could possibly become too pervasive and overwhelming for its victim to feel anything but hopeless despair. Online shamers take their licks here too, piling on the indignant Facebook OMGs when the ghost makes one girl’s awful involvement in the humiliation forever public. The movie’s central conceit—another wronged victim keeping an eye on the calendar and taking advantage of a meaningful anniversary to exact revenge—may be old hat, but the way it conveys its ideas is through an apt overload of up-to-the-minute social and personal high-tech concerns. If that means that even as soon as next year viewers end up looking at Unfriended as a quaint time capsule of the way things used to be, then so be it. But for right now the movie stands as an exceedingly clever reinvigoration of exhausted slasher movie tropes, and perhaps an even more potent and unforgiving glimpse on the multiple windows through which Internet-weaned young people can see the world.
Kids these days, amirite? Log off.
(For further reference, check out this article detailing just how the laptop screen artifice of Unfriended was pulled off.)