I have to say, I honestly thought the first real foray into ‘social networking’ horror movie would be some form of Snapchat exchange movie, where the plot unfolds in a series of 10 second vignettes building up to some shocking twist. [Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a cheap and terrible horror movie. Hollywood, give me a call.]
Instead, “Unfriended” – originally titled ‘Cybernatural’, ugh – looks to Skype as its foundation as a group of video chatting friends are terrorised by what seems to be the spirit of a girl who committed suicide a year before.
Its high-concept approach to storytelling brings with it advantages and disadvantages as we’re locked into the viewpoint of our heroine Blaire’s MacBook screen. We see what she sees through the webcams of her friends but when she checks out to go browse a website or open a chat window, we’re cut off from the other players as well. It’s moderately successful in generating horror but it too often relies on shrill teenage shouting and screaming to punctuate the terror and it’s very, very coy when it comes to showing much actual gore or violence and most kills take place off screen or are very quickly cut away from. Where it succeeds tremendously, however, is in capturing the fear, paranoia and frustration of seeing those three ‘someone is typing’ dots only to be followed by no message.
Even though the whole film plays out as something of a software commercial, there’s still room for even more product placement: the tabs open at the top of Blaire’s browser plug Forever 21 and even actress Shelley Hennig’s own MTV series “Teen Wolf” amongst others.
The film is more interesting as the gang are trying to figure out what’s going on rather than once it degenerates into a more formulaic variation on truth or dare. By and large, the revelations that are forced from the group are fairly mundane as befits the characters who, including the vengeful spirit of Laura, are a collection of unremarkable clichés, down to the fat kid who’s a whiz at IT. They’re so generic and remote; it’s hard to feel anything for them as they start to get picked off one by one.
That emotional distance is a key factor in the movie’s critique of bullying: the cloak of anonymity the internet grants a would-be bully when terrorising their victim but where the film scores its strongest thematic points is in underlining that your online past will eventually find you out and come back to haunt you.
“Unfriended” is a fairly tame, standard issue terrorised teen slasher movie but, thanks to its understanding of social media and the risks it presents and a dogged commitment to its twist on the found footage gimmick it manages to be a little bit more interesting.