With the click of a button, you can ruin someone’s life. That is the terrifying reality of the world in which we live today. As our world grows increasingly interconnected, we expose ourselves more and more to outside forces who can worm their way into our lives and tear them apart from within. Identity theft, phishing, and cyberbullying are but a few of the dangers we experience online that can have tangible, sometimes terrible real-world results. In spite of the technology’s ubiquity in our society, Hollywood has long struggled with tapping into those fears and incorporating social media into a horror movie framework. Until now, that is. While not entirely successful, Unfriended has cracked the code and managed to make a genuinely stressful, suspenseful, scary movie from our ongoing social media addiction.
It may seem like an easy observation to make. “Millenials are always on their phones and their laptops.” If it seems trite, that’s because it’s true. Look around you the next time you’re at a Starbucks or waiting in line for something — chances are that every face you see will be illuminated by an LCD backlight. Personally speaking, going without my cell phone for more than a couple hours results in a level of separation anxiety I’m honestly not comfortable with. Now imagine that your social media presence is leveraged against you and the technology you’ve come to know and trust takes a turn for the deadly. For anyone born after the year 2000, Unfriended will be abjectly terrifying, a stark reminder that what we say and do online has a way of coming back to haunt us. In this case, though, they aren’t being dogged by Facebook’s algorithms to recommend them great skincare; rather, they’re being pursued by the vengeful spirit of a classmate they wronged in the land of the living.
The premise of the story is simple. Six friends — Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead), and Val (Courtney Halverson) — enter into a group Skype call in order to video chat with each other from the comfort of their bedrooms. What they don’t bargain for, however, is the presence of another user in the chat, a mysterious profile picture-less account named “bille227”. After some amateur sleuthing — and some seriously upsetting Facebook messages — they learn that the intruder is someone claiming to be Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a high school classmate of theirs who committed suicide exactly one year ago after someone anonymously posted a video of her drunken antics at a party. Now, it seems that “Laura” is done being cyberbullied and is going to get the truth of what really happened from this group of friends one way or the other.
Based on a concept by director-producer Timur Bekmambetov (Ben-Hur, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), writer Nelson Greaves’ screenplay unfolds more like a play than a feature film, a quality that works to its credit. When is the last time you saw a film where all of the leads are on screen for nearly the entire time? It’s practically unheard of. Director Leo Gabriadze shot the film in long, unbroken, sometimes 80-to-90 minute takes that yield some impressive results from the young cast. There’s a palpable sense of both camraderie and fear as the action unfolds within the claustrophobic bounds of Blaire’s laptop screen. Rather than a typical haunted house set-up, these teens are trapped by technology, and you’ll find a sinking sense of dread in the pit of your stomach every time someone clicks away from the window or the webcam starts to glitch out, resulting in warped, distorted imagery.
Horror is often derided by cinema snobs for falling back of hackneyed tropes and cliches. Rather than focusing on cheap jump scares or gratuitous gore-porn, Unfriended prefers to slowly, constantly build suspense punctuated by sudden and horrific bursts of violence. Hearing notification sounds on my phone already fills my body with a Pavlovian dread, but thanks to Unfriended they have me afraid for my life. While it may not have been the first film to make use of the computer screen conceit, Unfriended manages to make the genre and the story its telling feel as fresh and as frightening as a text message reading “we need to talk.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos