There are some things that horror films love. They love masked murderers knocking around with massive knives or some form of household appliance, slaughtering people in the bloodiest way possible. They love attractive teenagers, horny buggers so powered by their urges that they can’t keep their hands off each other while their friends are murdered all around them. They love filling their films with all the clichés that can find, such as ‘loud music up to a jump scare that occurs a moment before the actual scare’, or ‘supernatural killer comes back to live just before the end, ready for another shock.
Something that horror doesn’t like, however, is technology. The mobile phone, for instance, is often taken out of action by the fact every teenager seems to live in a mobile blackspot, and the computer is only ever used to research the killer, a victim or some kind of occult phenomenon (you really can Google anything), a job that was up until recently provided by the library and its incredibly expansive selection of books and local interest newspapers.
My reason for this ramble is that a new horror has been released, and it incorporates technology to become a new form of the genre – a variation of the found-footage film, Unfriended is guaranteed to enthral anyone who watches it. Whereas generic horrors flood the market with the quality and quantity of a sewer pipe, this is one that will last.
Unfriended takes place almost entirely on the computer screen of high school student Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), set a year after the suicide of fellow student and childhood friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who killed herself after a relentless campaign of online abuse. She and her friends engage in Skype chat, noticing an unknown account has joined them. This person, the ghost of Laura, uses all forms of online manipulation to torment the group, punishing them for their hand in her death and picking them off one-by-one.
The film’s set-up is a new one, with the action all taking place on a computer screen in real time, and this choice enables us to connect with Blaire as a real person – she has photos of herself, we see tabs with shopping open, we get to see her music preferences on her playlists – and it also enables us to see her as a person. We quite literally observe her inner thoughts as she ponders what to type and what to reveal, contemplating how to phrase it – things that we all do, and that helps to viewer to empathise with her plight in a way that your typical brainless horror acting normally doesn’t.
Of course, relating with the characters in a horror film is not particularly helpful if the film itself is not very scary, and Unfriended does not disappoint in that regard. There is a palpable terror in watching events unfurl, especially as the characters become aware of their situation and their innermost secrets are revealed.
Laura the media-savvy ghost employs all the tools at her disposal, and teens noticeably will find it distressing because of how present some of these things are in their lives. A game of ‘never have I ever’ is something most of the viewers will have enjoyed, but under Laura’s command, it becomes excruciatingly tense.
A lot of viewers also come to horror films to see people being killed, and Unfriended is not unafraid to bump off its cast – we start with a group of six teenagers, and it’s safe to say that they aren’t all making it to the end. The deaths range in level of goriness, with one being so graphic and out-of-the-blue that it caught everyone in the cinema off-guard, and made one girl cry.
However, the film also continuously forces our attention to the fact that these victims have done horrible things – their abuse pushed a girl to kill herself, and throughout the film, we’re shown that they are not nice people. Laura reveals, for instance, that one of them vandalised her grave – forcing the viewer to connect with the characters and them outing them as monsters forces them into an interesting train of thinking.
The film has been acclaimed by critics for its portrayal of teen amorality, with the characters thinking that their abuse is acceptable and even justifiable, the screen offering a distance between their actions and themselves. A confession would save the lives of the friends, but the person responsible for the worst of Laura’s abuse simply refuses to give it – in a film with a murderous ghost out for revenge, every other character comes off as infinitely more horrible.
The film is not without flaws. The ghost threatens to kill anyone who leaves their computer, so Blaire decides to search for help via Chatroulette – the sequence that follows is somewhat dodgy, to say the least. The start of the film also drags a bit – I appreciate it takes a while to get us to know the characters and, thus, to be able to care and identify with them, but a bit of drag in a film lasting around 80 minutes is a shame. Lastly, the very end of the film is a colossal shame – I shan’t ruin it, but you could find it undoes a lot of the film’s work.
Unfriended is that rare beast in modern cinema – a different take on a genre, a novelty for people complaining that nothing new is ever released, an updated horror film for a digital generation that functions effectively at helping you care for the characters, scaring you and making you think. At times, it can be a bit of a mixed bag, but I fully recommend seeking it out.
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Cast: Shelley Hennig (Blaire), Moses Storm (Mitch), Renee Olstead (Jess), Will Peltz (Adam), Courtney Halverson (Val), Heather Sossaman (Laura)
Running Time: 83 Mins
Original post: https://theboar.org/2015/05/unfriended/