Equal parts Paranormal Activity, The Ring and Scream, Unfriended comes off as a gimmick movie at first glance—the entire film is shown through the laptop screen of main character Blaire (Shelley Henning), a typical American teenager who spends her time flitting through social media, YouTube clips and Skype video chats with her friends. During one such chat, a stranger suddenly intrudes, using the account of Laura Barns, a classmate who killed herself two years prior after an embarrassing video of her went viral. It soon becomes apparent that whoever is using Laura’s account is out for revenge against the people who cyberbullied her.
It’s tempting to write off Unfriended as yet another twist in the moribund found-footage genre, even though showing an entire film through chat screens isn’t anything new. Last year’s Open Windows did much the same thing, as did one of the segments of the first V/H/S film. However, there’s much more to it than that, and the metatextual implications of the film serve to make the whole experience deeply unsettling in a way that ghostly jump scares never could.
Writer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze aren’t making an anti-technology film. In fact, they might have created the first found-footage horror film where there is a very valid reason to keep the cameras running the entire time. “Laura” threatens to kill anyone that hangs up or disconnects, and it becomes clear very early on that whenever someone’s video goes out, something horrible happens. The focus of the film isn’t the technology but the behavior it breeds. Like the cursed video tape in The Ring, it’s simply a matter of horror evolving to fit the time, a reminder that human nature has changed very, very little even as our technology advances.
The film focuses on immediacy and reaction, much like the culture of social media. At one point, when “Laura” leaks the dirty secret of one of the Skypers onto Instagram, the comments condemning the person flood the post almost immediately, all of them in the ugliest language possible. Social media culture is all about impulse: share, click, like, don’t like, comment. We are encouraged—even rewarded—when we respond in the most visceral manner possible, shielded by a false wall of anonymity. At some point we are all trolls and voyeurs, whether or not we admit it to ourselves, and we breeze through life blissfully unaware or unconcerned with the repercussions of all our online comments. It’s that impulse-centered vibe that makes the film truly terrifying in its own way.
And the film truly is terrifying in an escalating, heart-pounding kind of way. The tension tightens the more we are drawn into the situation, which is where things get truly uncomfortable. The film unfolds in real time, and it was compiled from long takes where each cast member would do their part from top to bottom, reacting to random surprise script changes. It’s unnervingly spontaneous and natural, and it makes the audience part of the film. Just like Laura’s classmates watched the video that showed her at her worst, so too are we watching video of strangers being driven to the breaking point by their own sins. We are, in some way, as complicit in Laura’s suicide as the teenagers getting picked off one by one.
As the film progresses, and “Laura” forces everyone to reveal their dirtiest secrets, the characters start to turn on each other once they realize that everybody has said something or done something horrible to someone else, something they would rather forget. But that’s the whole point of the film: nothing can be forgotten, not entirely. It’s true that once something lands on the internet, it’s there forever…even a vengeful ghost.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+