by Brian Surber
Unfriended is an unusual type of horror film. It’s unusual because it’s a mainstream horror film, being given a wide release, which feels so very independent (and it is, being made for $1 million). It’s a specific premise that, on premise alone, doesn’t cater to conventions of its genre. It’s different. And in the midst of the supernatural ghosts/exorcism tenure of horror films that we are currently in, Unfriended feels like something that isn’t released in every theater. What that says about our current cinematic state is something I won’t get into but it is surprising. And it’s refreshing that this type of horror film exists and is playing nationwide. It also helps that Unfriended is pretty damn good.
The story involves five friends (it always does) that are chatting on Skype one night. The gimmick, which the film surprisingly excels at, is the entire movie takes place on the main characters’ computer. We see Blaire on Facebook, Spotify, Gmail, and of course Skype. The realism the film brings to this computer screen is fantastic. The desktop is cluttered, Blaire uses abbreviations, she makes mistakes on spelling, and she plays songs, closes windows, and moves the mouse when she doesn’t need to. Everything that a normal teenager would do on computer is shown here in great detail and the best part is that Unfriended does not exploit these details or draw attention to them. It’s all played for realism and it works. You really do feel like you are watching this girl’s computer screen.
As these friends chat a mysterious caller tries to join their Skype session. At first they aren’t sure who it is but as the films plays out signs point to the caller possibly being a deceased friend who killed themselves due to cyber bullying. The caller taunts the friends and one by one exposes secrets about them, leading to a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever” (although the idea that a teenager not knowing that game and needed the rules explained is a bit ridiculous, the producers should have trusted that the audience would have caught on.) Eventually the group is killed off in mysterious ways as their secrets become public.
The film is rather thrilling and always entertaining. The characters are somewhat one-note but the filmmakers counter that by them becoming more interesting as their secrets come out. And boy, the secrets are a doozy, toward the end of the film they come pouring out as the characters unravel and it’s some juicy stuff. What’s great about the scene is that each secret doesn’t have time to land as more keep coming out. It’s a great way to stage a climax in a film as oddly specific as this. The ending 20 minutes leave you breathless as so much happens it’s a lot to process and adds to the tension.
The film isn’t outright scary but it’s tension filled and bracing. The story is simple, to be sure, but what makes Unfriended as unnerving as it is, is the way it uses the various programs that Blaire is using. The ringing sound Skype makes when someone is calling you blasts the ears; the notification noise from Facebook is a simmering jolt; and the lagging from videos and live chat add suspense and brace-yourself horror that is incredibly effective. The simple but terribly forceful tactics used in Unfriended elevate this potentially contrived film to fascinating horror.
Cyber bullying proves to be the main theme of Unfriended. Each of these characters may have had a hand in an embarrassing video of a young girl at the school that prompted people to tell her to kill herself and so she did. An incredibly interesting note is that the film does not paint the deceased as a saint. She wasn’t perfect but didn’t deserve the assault that accumulated after a regretful night. The fact that she wasn’t just a good girl adds to the film’s message of this could happen to anyone. Actions have consequences even with something as safe as cyber bullying. A lot has been made on the subject of cyber bullying but what Unfriended does is not only take the bullied and make her someone who is not normally the subject of ridicule, but it also paints the culprits as not necessarily awful people but people who made regrettable mistakes. It adds fuel to the message of your actions have consequences regardless of remorse.
The actors all play their part well and the film makes an interesting case of multiple-viewing necessity as you can focus solely on a specific character and their reactions throughout the entire film. Its story is basic and the kills are ok if not silly (Chekhov’s Gun galore). The ending is easily the weakest part of the film. Unfriended offers a standard horror ending (you’ll see it coming) instead of an incredibly effective one that would have made the film linger long after the credits. It’s a shame in a film this clever and different in technique to offer a silly conventional ending, rather than one that leaves the audience with an unease while cementing its anti-cyber bullying message. It’s really a shame, but not enough to hurt what came before it.
Ending aside it’s hard to argue that Unfriended isn’t a technically clever little horror film. And the fact that it’s being released nationwide is incredibly exciting. Like It Follows (which is also playing nationwide, aren’t you lucky?) the film will probably not haunt your dreams, but it’s tension-filled and fascinating, and most importantly something different. Unfriended is a surprisingly fun time at the movies and way more skilled than it should be. It’s almost like a Blair Witch Project for the cyber-age, only much better. With something to say (most horror films say nothing), capable performances, nice scares, and brilliantly clever technical detail, Unfriended is something special; a horror film unlike any most seen in recently memory that’s playing at a theater near you.