Normally, when a horror movie opens two weeks before the biggest blockbuster of the year, you can smell the stink a mile away. Doubly so if it involves a dubious gimmick centered around some social trend that the kids are so into these days. Cheap, lurid cash grabs are standard-issue for the horror genre, and not even Universal – the grand dame of all things that go bump in the night – can resist it if the stars are right.
But here’s the thing: Unfriended actually knows what it’s doing. I wouldn’t call it brilliant horror, but it is effective horror… and if you squint at it right, it actually has something to say about the world we live in. Not bad for a movie that basically asks us to look at someone else’s desktop for 80 minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. Taking place in real time and consisting entirely of the heroine’s constantly changing laptop screen, it transforms her virtual space into a de facto haunted house: Ten Little Indians set on a Skype group call. The hook is obvious, but Unfriended assembles its scenario with such elegance that you stop noticing within a few minutes.
The set-up doesn’t waste time either. Six high school friends get together on Skype one dull evening, only to find a crasher at their group-chat party. They can’t get rid of him/her/it, and as the movie progresses, it’s clear that he/she/it has a gruesome agenda in store. Not coincidentally, the date marks the anniversary of a classmate’s suicide following an especially cruel bout of cyberbullying. These clean-cut young people were involved somehow, and their virtual intruder intends to bleed the truth out of them.
There’s an obvious Meta problem here, since our imperiled teens can just turn off the computer and call the cops. Thing is, they do, and while the deus gets a little ex machina during those moments, Unfriended’s scenario at least addresses the issue. More importantly, it uses the opportunity to take a sly dig at our cyber-addicted culture: the way so many of us can’t just hit the shut-off button or even walk away. We might miss something, after all… even if “something” consists of a close friend having his hand forced into a blender.
That tendency forms the movie’s secret weapon, and part of its more interesting observations as well. Computers are tools and we’re addicted in part to the feeling of control they give us. Hit a button and surf around the web, play music, order stuff on Amazon, even put that obnoxious friend on mute so you don’t have to listen to him. But that control often proves to be an illusion: you can’t reclaim anything you send out into the void… and with the whole world potentially watching, that stray comment could turn around and bite you in surprisingly horrific ways.
Add to that our general frustration when the computer doesn’t do what we want, and you have a potential for anxiety that Unfriended takes great delight in exploiting. The film sticks resolutely to its teen-friendly approach, but finds kinky ways to unsettle us through clever uses of bad feeds, dropped lines and the kind of creepy anonymity that only the Internet can provide. Everyone’s had that moment where we swear our computers are malevolent entities designed to drive us insane. Unfriended merely takes the equation to its logical extreme, and in the process produces a reasonably scary good time.
On top of it all comes the cyberbullying issue, which the film presents in reasonably straightforward fashion but with a fair amount of insight. High school tormentors rarely think of themselves as cruel or mean, and our ability to deny responsibility for our actions becomes all the easier amid the bouillabaisse of online culture. (“Who posted that? Dunno; wasn’t me…”) Unfriended also thrives as a time capsule, aptly capturing life in 2015 that will likely look increasingly dated as time goes on. But strip that away and the social cruelty is as old as time itself: tapping into the same vein of high school angst as Carrie or any of its descendants. Teenagers – and indeed everyone else – may have access to more high-tech toys, but we’re still the same savages underneath, and our ability to dehumanize each other doesn’t change as the years roll by. That fact will likely help Unfriended avoid the worse ravages of time.
And we need to be wary of overpraising as well. Unfriended hangs too much on its gimmick, and the scares may not hold up well to multiple viewings, which spells doom in a genre whose next quickie cash grab is always just around the corner. But those braced for another turkey may find a pleasant surprise here, something with more on its mind than cheap scares for the kiddies. Horror fans live for discoveries like this, when a supposed piece of crap has more under its hood than anyone suspected. Unfriended benefits from defying our expectations, but most importantly by respecting the concepts that push it further than just a collection of flimsy scares.