Unfriended turns your laptop into a horror movie with smart atmosphere building tension
The most successful of horror movies are those that can unsettle you where you feel the most comfortable. And what is more comfortable of a place than at home on your laptop? I mean, chances are you’re reading this on a laptop. Even as I am writing this review I’m toggling between different web pages, iMessage, and even popping into the occasional Skype session (which is probably not the smartest idea after watching this movie). This is what the latest indie horror flick Unfriended thrives on. Fear of the mundane. Though to be fair, the situation portrayed in the film is anything but.
At its core, Unfriended is a classic slash flick with a bit of I Know What You Did Last Summer thrown in. We are introduced to the five friends who make up the “players” in this convoluted game. Luckily for us, they’re easy to keep track of since they’re confined to their own little boxes on the screen in one impossible long shot. Also, they inhabit the stereotypical horror movie characters. We have the virgin, her boyfriend, the athlete, the fool, and the whore. Which are easily adapted from the simple breakdown in The Cabin in the Woods.
However, where the film takes a turn for the creative is its setting. The entire film takes place on the laptop of high school student Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) as she navigates different windows as her Skype session goes from bad to worse. On the one-year anniversary of the suicide of their classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), Blaire watches the video of the teenager killing herself on camera. We then see her looking up the video itself, which depicts Laura passed out drunk having defecated herself.
This is why the film is more successful than other “found footage” horror films that take place on computers like The Den and Open Windows and some slasher flicks in general. Screenwriter Nelson Greeves and director Leo Gabriadze take advantage of the nuances of a personal laptop. From viewing Blaire’s search history and Facebook page to watching videos on YouTube and reading online news articles, the usual clunky expositional dialogue of most horror movies has been replaced by these small looks into the world they’re living in. Even the relationship between Laura and Blaire is explored using the Facebook “see friendship” feature.
The film begins a Skype chat between the five friends, with an unknown sixth participant. Despite their various attempts to get ride of “billie227,” they can’t. The session takes a turn for creepy when the group begins receiving messages from Laura Barnes’ Facebook. The innocent harassment elevates to threats when she starts dealing out incriminating photos of the group, which leads to fighting amongst themselves, while also fighting for their lives. This leads to different games that the group must participate in at the hands of the ghost of Laura Barnes.
However, don’t think that the film just goes for cheap jump scares and gore, although there are plenty of those. The film actually shows a surprising amount of restraint. Using their technological landscape to their advantage, the filmmakers build tension with shoddy connections, buffering, and even the dreaded pinwheel of death.
The second half of the film focuses on a tension-filled lethal game of “never have I ever” that leads the characters to face their past sins, while also feeling what Laura felt after her cyber assault. This is what the movie’s frank lesson is. The dangers of cyberbullying, its consequences, and the cruelty of people and technology. Sure, the lesson is overt, but it is an important one to note.
This is where I’m going to set the record straight. Unfriended would be an average horror movie at best without its intriguing “found footage” concept. Its general conceit is a slasher revenge film, all the way down to the characters involved. That being said, the concept of the entire film taking place on a laptop screen brings it above and beyond what many horror movies have been doing in recent years. It builds tension opposed to just going for constant cheap jump scares, and it even unsettles you from something in your everyday life. It’s not going to go down as a horror classic, but it should be appreciated for what it is: a stupidly fun movie.