When referring to Unfriended (originally Cybernatural) as a gimmick, I mean it in the most complimentary way possible. Allegedly shot in one take, and occurring entirely on the screen of a laptop, it’s easy to dismiss as “just another found footage flick,” but unlike a lot of fare in this subgenre, Unfriended actually has something to say, and says it effectively.
One year after a young woman commits suicide as the result of cyberbullying, a few of her friends are group chatting over Skype when things start to get strange. An anonymous internet presence operating through the various social media outlets of the deceased woman gets involved in the chat, and in classic slasher fashion our group (complete with a dumb jock, an innocent virgin, a chunky stoner, and a loose party girl) are offed one by one.
I can think of a hundred different movies that use the found footage conceit for no reason outside of simple gimmickry, but in the case of Unfriended, the style is essential to the story, and director Levan Gabriadze does not skimp on the details. From the open tabs in the browser (Jezebel, a Johnny Cash video, Forever 21), to the real-life interfaces of Spotify, Facebook, and Skype, the onscreen action is all too familiar. I can only imagine how effective this film will be when it is available to watch on a computer. Each and every click feels lived-in because we’ve all lived it in some sense. For example, when our audience surrogate (the virgin, whose computer screen is the focal point) types messages into a chat box, we see the editing process that we’ve all been guilty of: typing a sentence a few different ways before clicking send. Anyone can take back what they’ve said with their mouth, but once it’s written down, it’s permanent … and the Internet is forever.
Therein lies the most compelling aspect of the film. Connectivity is commonplace, so much so that we can easily forget the indelible impact of how we behave on the web (like how a few tasteless tweets can bite a comedian back many years after the fact), and lose respect for the power we all carry in our pockets. A prank amongst friends is one thing, but we now have the ability to share a moment of embarrassment with the world, and that embarrassment can snowball into internationally broadcasted mortification in a matter of minutes. Even if Unfriended omitted all of its supernatural elements, it purveys a very relevant and familiar horror.
And as a horror film, Unfriended is very successful. The carnage is clever and gruesome, and the pacing keeps the suspense tight for its short (and if I do say so, proper) running time. By keeping it relatively simple, Unfriended avoids the traps that befell Nacho Vigalando’s inferior (but still quite entertaining) Open Windows, which betrayed its own format to extend the stage beyond the confines of its visual aesthetic, resulting in a flashy-but-messy product. Unfriended is more on par with the under-appreciated Netflix gem The Den in that it forgoes excess for realism (there’s a segment in V/H/S that is also successful for the same reason, albeit in a smaller format) which, as previously mentioned, makes for an effectively relatable film.
Not only is Unfriended a jolly good time at the movies, but it will also make you second guess both how you present yourself online, and how you react to others’ presentations. My favorite horror movies double as morality plays, and Unfriended ranks as one of the most relevant.
I think the only thing that could have made this movie more terrifying is if it were revealed that Comcast is the evil force behind the carnage.
Homework: hunt down a copy of Kairo (remade in America as Pulse) and have yourself a wicked tech-horror double feature!