Unfriended, the new offering from low-budget purveyors of genre flicks Blumhouse Productions, is more of an interesting formal experiment than a successful narrative, told entirely via social media: Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Snapchat, etc. As such, it very much wants to be a horrific cautionary tale about the modern age in which we live, where everything is documented, so no event, no matter how trivial or ostensibly hidden, is private. Far from a modern horror stand-by, like a The Ring or The Blair Witch Project for our selfie-obsessed generation, it’s never quite scary enough, never quite insightful enough, though its unique hook sets it apart from the found footage fiascos of REC or V/H/S.
Blaire’s (Shelly Hennig) night starts out like any other. She Skypes with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), checks her Facebook updates, listens to music and chats with her friends. Before long, however, a mysterious online presence stalks Blaire and her buddies, and this may or may not be related to their friend and classmate Laura (Heather Sossaman), who was driven to suicide exactly one year ago … today. Cue dramatic music!
Playing out in real time, and framed as a continuous shot, Unfriended quickly establishes the self-appointed limitations of its approach—but that is actually one of the strengths of the movie: the audience only ever sees Blaire’s computer. The camera focuses on her screen; we see what she sees. This includes her friends on their computers, and her in her own window as well. She flips back and forth between tabs and applications, talking with someone, IMing someone else, fielding Facebook messages, Googling answers to questions, checking her email. The open tabs at the top of the screen offer insight into the character: She’s shopping, doing research for school or watching the video of Laura’s death (as well as the video that pushed Laura over the edge). In a little bit of meta-commentary (or cross-marketing), one window is even open to the page for MTV’s Teen Wolf, a show in which Hennig appears. All of this admittedly sounds clunky, but Russian director Levan Gabriadze makes it feel organic; there’s a logic and flow to Blaire’s actions online.
Where Unfriended works best is in the build up, and as things gradually get creepier and creepier—Blaire and her online pals think there’s a glitch, then they think someone is playing a trick on them, then it becomes clear that there is something more sinister at work—the narrative peels back layers until the story is legitimately unsettling and uneasy: Something very familiar, but off just enough to seriously signal that not all is right with this world.
Unfortunately, by the time the film reaches its second act, as whatever mysterious force torments the friends, playing them against one another by forcing them to reveal their darkest secrets, it becomes more overwrought and melodramatic than scary. There is a great deal of screaming teen and contrived onscreen deaths, none of which is particularly engaging, even in a campy kind of way.
At one point, a character calls the police and says, “I’m at home, I’m online,” imbuing this new space, this other space, with a kind of hyper-reality. Elsewhere, desperate for help, unable to log off without deadly consequences, she turns to strangers on Chat Roulette for help. Unfriended comments on social media and the way we interact with these new tools that take over our lives, taking on cyberbullying and online harassment, hazards faced everyday by a new generation. While these are both noble aims, Unfriended is too slight and sparse to say much of anything. Straightforward and critical of the groupthink you so often find online, as well as the anonymity that allows this kind of negative, usually consequence-free behavior, the film is cautionary—but nothing more than that.
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Writers: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysoki, Courtney Halverson
Release Date: April 17, 2015