Social media and the way we live our lives online can seem so bizarre, unknowable and overwhelming that it was only a matter of time before someone made a horror movie based around just that premise. Unfriended is that film and its initial conceit is rather neat: it takes place entirely on the laptop screen of a teenage girl named Blaire (Ouija’s Shelley Hennig), who we only ever see through the camera she points at herself during her Skype chats with boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) and friends Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Val (Courtney Halverson), all of whom fill Blaire’s screen with their own Skype windows, which fight for space with her private chat with Mitch, her Facebook page and her Spotify playlist.
As the film opens, however, the first image we see is a YouTube video of another teen girl, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) shooting herself in the head outside school exactly one year earlier. The popular but nasty Laura, it seems, was shamed into suicide by an embarrassing video posted online that showed her getting not just shit-faced drunk but shitting her pants as a result. Since horror stories tend to take place on the anniversaries of such awful events, it’s not terribly surprising when our six friends’ video chat is interrupted by a user named “Billie227” — while Blaire herself begins getting Facebook messages and emails from someone claiming to be Laura.
You can guess what happens from that point on, but the basic predictability of Unfriended’s plot is countered at first by the unique way it’s presented. Everything unfolds through those overlapping browser windows, and director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves use the format to cleverly create genuinely chilling moments as well as small character details — such as when Blaire begins typing a response to question, pauses with her cursor hovering, then changes the answer to something slightly more damning to another character. Perhaps the eeriest image is the empty silhouette of a person that is the avatar of “Billie227” — anyone who has been contacted by an unknown user or spammer will recognize the tiny worm of fear it induces.
Don’t look for logic in Unfriended: this is a horror story, where the rules of the real world don’t apply, so there’s no explanation for either how Laura Barns’ vengeful spirit gets online or how she perpetrates the deadly deeds that follow. But the steady build of tension and dread in the movie’s first half as she hijacks the chat between the six protagonists is the best part of Unfriended and induces some well-earned scares, while making good use of Blaire’s ever-shifting screen to emphasize both what is the priority in any given “scene” and approximate how teens manipulate their online universe.
It’s the movie’s second half that ultimately is its undoing. The narrative path is, as we mentioned earlier, predictable: secrets and lies surface among the group at the prodding of “Billie” and they start to turn against each other even as some of them meet horrible deaths (usually just glimpsed as their Skype window freezes and breaks up). But the characterizations are so thin and the arguments so petty that the movie falls into the old slasher-film trap of either making the viewer want to see the people onscreen die or simply not caring whether they do. Gabriadze, in control for the film’s first half, decides that the only way to escalate the terror even further is by making Blaire’s screen as frantic as possible, with the noise and volume raised accordingly.
The six actors are all solid enough, but the only recognizable name among the cast and filmmakers is producer Timur Bekmambetov, whose own directorial resume includes vapid idiocies like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bekmambetov conceived the idea for Unfriended and sold it to Blumhouse Productions, the horror banner known for Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister and others. The movie is creepy and entertaining, but beyond its admittedly interesting setting, it’s just another ghostly revenge story with performances that vary between good and annoying and little to say about the way young people communicate except that cyber-bullying is bad — and even that worthy message gets lost in the online noise, eventually breaking up like a bad wi-fi connection.