Horror movies have been struggling to come to terms with the internet for a while now. The familiar scene where a character heads to the library to check out a book on the supernatural and find a way to ward off the ghost in their home is slowly being replaced by a scene where a character fires up an off-brand search engine to look up that all-important ritual. But characters in movies rarely spend as much time on the internet as we do, because it’s not particularly thrilling to watch someone sitting at a keyboard.
Unfriended might change that, though.
Borrowing techniques from found footage movies like Paranormal Activity, the focus here never shifts from a computer screen. It’s been a year since Laura (Heather Sossaman) killed herself because a cruel video of her passed out at a party went viral, and her former BFF Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is video chatting with her friends on Skype. But something’s wrong with the program, because an extra person no-one knows keeps being added to their conversations. Is it just a glitch? Well, no. Because in another window, Blaire’s receiving creepy Facebook messages from someone claiming to be Laura…
Watching the story unfold in real time on Blaire’s computer is kind of hypnotic. You’d think it’d be dull, but it’s not. Blaire’s the kind of person who doesn’t keep her desktop tidy, and she’s always got about fifteen tabs open at any given moment. If you get bored during the first act, when most of the conversation is about which of their friends no-one really likes, and what kinds of concert tickets are the best, you can let your eye wander across the screen and check out Blaire’s bookmarks (Jezebel; Teen Wolf) and open tabs (Facebook; Forever21). Blaire uses her computer like a real person, and there’s a weirdly voyeuristic thrill in scanning her internet history or watching as she types, deletes, then re-types messages, searching for the right words. Looking at her computer is like looking into her brain.
Since this is a horror movie, things soon take a turn for the worse – and considering the film opens with a video of a teenage girl killing herself, ‘worse’ means ‘pretty goddamn terrible’. All the teens have secrets, and even without a vengeful ghost to push them into arguments, there are plenty of reasons for them to turn on one another. Unfriended has a sly sense of humour, and it uses every internet trend and meme it can think of to torture its characters. Even Spotify playlists get nasty.
There are some missteps, like a botched 911 call that stretches credulity a little too far, and a Chatroulette scene that’ll make you laugh when the film wants you to be most scared. Plus, underneath it all, the story is a pretty straightforward tale of a ghost looking for revenge, which we’ve all seen more than once before. But the cleverness of the conceit combined with the use of real websites and a clear understanding of the online world makes it feel fresh – and creepy. Unfriended is set in a familiar landscape; these aren’t teenagers blithely traipsing off to an isolated cabin to get picked off by a maniac, they’re just kids messing about on the internet, and that makes it scarier.
It also might have a real point to make about the things we do online, and how easy the internet makes it to be incredibly, deeply cruel to another person without ever really thinking about it. Words on a screen might seem harmless, but there are real people on the other end, and our online lives aren’t separate from our ‘real’ lives. The two are inextricably linked, and that means online actions have consequences. It’s unlikely that internet trolls are going to be scared off cyberbullying because this movie suggests a vengeful ghost might appear to punish them for their sins, but, ah, wouldn’t it be nice if they were?
In the end, how much you like this movie might depend on how much time you spend online. If some part of you isn’t filled with trepidation as the computer tells you the other person is typing… typing… typing… then Unfriended might fall a bit flat. For those of us whose teenage social lives played out almost entirely on a screen, though, it’ll be terrifying.
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