This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.
In order to survive, one must adapt. As the world changes and influences shift, society must move with the times in order to keep advancing. The same goes for horror films. In order for such a manipulative genre to survive, filmmakers have to adapt to the times and find horror in the ways people are living TODAY, not twenty years ago. Cell phones get service everywhere, video cameras capture everything, and the internet has turned into a cesspool of hatred that’s ten times more terrifying than Leatherface’s dungeon – so why not use it?
That’s exactly what Unfriended does. Teenagers don’t have to be galavanting around isolated campgrounds to become genre victims anymore; all they need is an internet connection, a free night, and a pile of twisted secrets like ammunition for a loaded gun. Trust me, after watching this movie you’re going to think twice about answering that random Skype call next time you’re online.
Writer Nelson Greaves pens one of the more competent techno-horror thrillers I’ve seen to date in Unfriended, and he does so by introducing us to a group of high schoolers who join a video Skype conference one night to kill some time. There’s an uninvited guest in the party, though, and after numerous failed attempts to boot the assumed hacker, strange messages start to pollute the otherwise harmless chat. As the night goes on, the friends begin to worry that something sinister is going on, tying back to the death of a classmate (Laura Barns) who committed suicide after a nasty personal video was posted for the world to see. One by one the chatters start to relive their darkest secrets, but could the mystery guest really be the ghost of Laura?
In the realm of these techy horror experiences, Unfriended exists as the most realistic portrayal of modern computer applications to date, which matters WAY more than you’d think. Other movies like The Den and Open Windows are forced to use fake programs that detract from a film’s realism, but because of the more mainstream nature of Unfriended, all the programs we know and love pop up for heartwarming cameos.
Whether it’s the warming glow of a Macbook desktop, Skype’s familiar tone, or Gmail’s sleek infrastructure, we’re immediately connected to each character because they’re representing how we’d surf the net as well. Even the subtlest notions (like open internet tabs for MTV’s Teen Wolf or Forever 21) immediately connect us to characters, which elevates our fear on the simple basis of relatability. Scares hit the hardest when you’re able to see yourself in a victim, and director Levan Gabriadze clearly understands that.
So, here’s the next question – does the gimmick of watching only a computer screen wear off? No, it never does. The windows shift around at a quick-enough pace to promote changing settings, like you’re reaching a new scene when one of the characters closes Skype and opens YouTube. You’re always darting around the desktop looking for possible clues, and certain societal behaviors reveal themselves as tension mounts.
Whether Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is waving her mouse around the screen in frustration or re-writing text as she’s typing, we watch every mystery unfold in what’s NOT being sent to the rest of the cast. We have the privilege of only knowing Blaire’s point of view, clued into what she is messaging Laura’s presumed-to-be deactivated Facebook account. Gabriadze craftily hones in on the suspenseful nature of each new discovery, and keeps us wondering about the mystery guest until the final window is closed.
The only thing that holds back Unfriended is the limited nature of its scares, brought on by the hellish scenario of fuzzy internet connections. The jumps are pretty generic, and they only come when video feeds cut away, which is what we’re expecting. The microphone picks up loud noises at the most inopportune moments to provide some more extra jolts, but it’s nothing that techno horror flicks haven’t pulled on us before. Don’t worry though, there’s a saving grace – the kills.
Bless Gabriadze’s heart for putting together some wickedly vicious kill sequences. Some may or may not include a blender, while others are immortalized in the form of an internet meme that David Caruso’s sunglasses-wearing face would approve of. They’re not overly gory (with mainstream consideration being kept in mind), but each kill caps off another violent round in the blank Skype avatar’s twisted competition. You all remember the drinking game “Never Have I Ever,” right? Well, what if instead of drinking a beer when you lose, you get a bullet to the head? Unfriended finds new and creative ways to kill off its whiny, spooked victims (who are funny, entertaining stereotypes), and even though the action is only caught in a chatroom frame, each payoff is ‘effing brutal in the most gratifying of ways.
Unfriended is a 21st century nightmare – someone can post hurtful pictures on your Facebook without your permission, flick on random songs that obviously foreshadow something sinister, and remove access to simple functions like closing out a browser window or remove your capability to forward messages. What’s worse is you’re at the mercy of the internet, something so vast it could never be contained – unless in a paranormal haunting by a vengeful ex-classmate. Gabriadze begs you to pick which situation you find scarier, and I promise, there’s no best answer in that scenario. Ever wonder who’s at the other end of a computer screen, conversing with you in some chatroom? That’s not a question you’ll want answered after Unfriended.
Unfriended is a terrifying cyber nightmare for today's generation of laptop-loving teenagers who think trolls are the worst thing the internet has to offer.
Unfriended Review [SXSW 2015]