There’s few things more effective in a horror movie than twisting the comfortable and familiar into the unsettling and horrifying. My generation and I grew up in and around computers and the Internet. We can't imagine life without them.
So what Unfriended does is take this empowering and ubiquitous technology and demonically contort it into a cold-blooded killer, and we watch the story unfold on a laptop. Yes, Unfriended takes place entirely on a high school senior’s computer screen.
Blaire (Shelley Hennig) browses Facebook, Skypes dirty with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), plays music, and has a conference video call with three other friends. There’s several apps running and a billion tabs open as Blaire multitasks between it all. Basically, it’s a computer screen most of us see every day.
It just so happens to be the one year anniversary of the suicide of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who shot herself after being relentlessly cyberbullied for an embarrassing video posted by one of her friends. So on this night, Laura’s vengeful spirit takes over her Skype and Facebook accounts, toying with the teens’ lives and sanity through cruel, secret-spilling games. And again, we see all of this happen on a computer screen; Unfriended is a desktop drama, and it’s the first of its kind.
…well, almost. The groundbreaking short film Noah also took place on a computer screen. Although not a horror, Noah brilliantly uses many of the quirks and annoyances of modern technology – cryptic text messages, buffering icons, not being able to lurk that guy’s Facebook profile – to create tension, advance the plot, and draw laughs. Unfriended continues those tropes in a peculiar mix of a slasher flick and a found footage movie, with the footage being everyone’s Skype video.
Laura brutally offs the teens one by one as they confess their sins and reveal their deepest transgressions against her and against themselves. Even Blaire and Mitch’s relationship comes to a head in terrifying fashion as their secrets spill before each other. They’re all guilty of something.
I never thought I would find horror on a computer screen. Much of Unfriended’s scary moments actually come from the tiniest details – Laura cues up Connie Conway’s “How You Lie, Lie, Lie” on Blaire’s Spotify to patronize her dishonesty, which cannot be paused or muted. Several Chrome windows pop up playing Laura’s embarrassing party video, all of which cannot be closed. Laura directly responds to Blaire’s verbal comments. Even the dreaded buffering icon (yes, that one) creates even more worry and suspense here than it does in real life. Truly, the devil is in the details.
There’s even several humorous moments in Unfriended – some would say more than scarier moments. If anything, these moments diffuse tension and suspense, only to have the movie ramp up the scares again in an emotional roller coaster. It's worth noting that Unfriended’s incredibly self-aware humor also makes for good entertainment.
At the heart of Unfriended is a cautionary tale of cyber bullying, and each of the teens is culpable in some way for Laura’s suicide. Whether or not you ultimately find Unfriended scary – that comes down to personal tastes – we can agree with the movie’s argument against cyberbullying, which greatly harms one’s self-esteem, emotions, and psyche.
The caveat of shooting a movie on a computer screen is that aspects like cinematography and blocking are largely unusable. Director Levan Gabriadze thus had to carefully arrange Blaire’s apps and windows to deliver plot details bits at a time. Combined with notification pings, Gabriadze guides our eyes to the most pertinent window on Blaire’s screen. This MacBook mise en scéne breathes realism and dimensionality into the movie, making for an interesting watch.
That being said, like any horror movie, Unfriended has its share of hits and misses. But the nature of the desktop drama – a wholly new subgenre – makes these shortcomings somewhat forgivable. At a blissfully short 82 minutes, Unfriended should be worth a look if you want something more unique, yet familiar enough that it hits very close to home.
Watch the Noah short film here.
Written by Nelson Greaves. Directed by Levan Gabriadze.
Starring Heather Sossaman, Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Matthew Bohrer, and Courtney Halverson.