The anonymity the internet offers has its advantages in some ways, but it has also enabled some people’s incredibly ugly sides, causing some truly disturbing instances of harassment and mob mentality. The prime example of recent memory probably would be the whole Gamergate fiasco, with the treatment of many games industry professionals including threats and even fake SWAT call outs. Cyberbullying is a real issue, with many of those responsible taking full advantage of the way things work only to take actions and say things they’d never do face-to-face with their targets. Worse, the distancing effect a web interface has (when it’s really there to bring people together like never before) allows many of these trolls to feel less responsible. As such, it’s very refreshing to find a mainstream film like Unfriended calling out this point, acting as a rallying cry against it, and showing the sort of mentality that leads to it. What’s more, the film delivers this message while still providing an immensely satisfying horror experience in an interesting alternative to Found Footage which still keeps the first person perspective…
It has been one year after a video on YouTube, and a bandwagon of harassment and bullying online, lead to teenager Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman) taking her own life. On this night, some classmates of hers, including her former best fried Blaire (Shelley Hennig) are online having a Skype chat. Thing is, there’s someone else in the chat window who wasn’t invited. Whoever it is, they can’t seem to be removed from the line, and they seem to know quite a bit about them. Then odd things start happening to their social media accounts, including revealing some very personal secrets they have. That’s when Blaire notices that the Skype account is Laura’s old one. It seems she has some issues to resolve with them, and she’s no mere ghost in the machine. While she communicates onscreen, she can very much harm all of them for real, and will do so unless some home truths are bought into light.
Almost this whole film takes the POV of Blaire’s desktop during the Skype chat, which takes place in real time. This may sound purely like a gimmick, but the remarkable thing is how well it works, mainly on the story being written with that point kept directly in mind, form & function going hand in hand. On a purely technical level, when one considers points like the editing/relative lack of (most of the cast had to do long unbroken takes), it’s quite an impressive technical achievement. (On this point, the major downside of this Blu Ray version is the lack of any extras, when this is one film that’s very nature begs for a commentary/making of.) But it also allows for some smart storytelling, in seeing Blaire’s interactions with the desktop, as it gives the audience a window into her though processes. For example, seeing the way she chooses her words in instant messaging, and what she chooses not to reveal gives an idea of the importance of these points to her. Also, a major plus point for the film is having all the real brands like Apple, Facebook, Skype etc. on board, as seeing these such ubiquitous interfaces and hearing the instantly recognisable sound effects helps the immersion factor immensely. If they had to make up a “Friendface” say, it probably would have jarred one out of the sense of immersion this film achieves remarkably well.
On that point, the film scores big in the scare stakes too, using the limitations/unusual methods of filming to full advantage in terms of what to hide and what to show. Right from Universal logo, the film is aware of the truly eerie effects that some graphical issues with Skype connection errors has (so no, that isn’t your Blu Ray copy scratched, the film is like to be like that at the start, don’t panic!). The film uses the small, close up views that webcams offer to give a very claustrophobic feel for the characters; not just are they all in a very tight frame, but they are all separated physically from the others while always technically in shot. It fits the body count formula well, as it’s a reminder that they cannot physically help each other when things go bad, and they do go bad. There are some nasty deaths in this one, with the nature of filming meaning that they are never shown in every full detail, they never have the chance to end up looking special effects-ish, like a lot of slasher movies. Instead, the awkward, sudden glimpses we have of some of them give them much more of a shocking impact, made better in retrospect in the way many of them have been foreshadowed. On this point, the film manages tension building incredibly well in a lot of different ways and set ups. It does a great job of getting across the spirit of Laura Barnes’ character in this way, in the way she plays games with the characters, toying with them before the kill.
Which brings up one of this film’s main strengths; characterisation and theming. The leads in this film are a your standard teen horror movie idiots, so your mileage may vary on how much they annoy you, but the film soon makes clear the fact that these people aren’t supposed to be likeable, not in the slightest. Online, we are often aware that what we post under our names, once it’s out there, it’s out there and stays there, so we often choose the way we present ourselves carefully around that. For some people then, that means putting up a pretty heavy front to cover up the way they really are, just like how we often do in social situations, only to a potentially greater degree. Therefore, what Laura Barnes’ spirit does to the characters here is to piece by piece strip away the masks, making them show each other, and by the end the wider world, just what they really are. It fits the cyberbullying theme perfectly, as it’s all about forcing them to break down the wall of anonymity and bring them face to face with genuine, horrific consequences for their actions.
Unfriended probably isn’t for everyone; if you have a low tolerance for the sorts of archetypes that inhabit these horror films, you probably won’t be converted here. Also, while overall a smart script, it does have its clunky moments that break the flow a bit (would any teen with internet access these days not know what a “Troll” is?). But overall, it works as an experiment in horror film formats, it delivers a message that needs to be shouted loud and clear, and it does so in a way that never gets in the way of the fun or the shocks. There is already talk of a sequel, possibly inspired by Gamergate, but it’s hard to say if something like this can work more than once. This definitely works though, in shocks, scares, and to a great degree suspense, with the stand out being one scene that manages to provide a huge amount of tension and a heart-stopping shock just from a piece of paper. Definitely worth checking out.