Horror movies tend thrive best when they’re defined by excess or restraint. ‘Unfriended’ falls into the restraint category, and the flick has a hell of a central gimmick to use as a selling point.
The entire movie plays out on a computer screen and is mostly viewed in a single Skype chat with a variety of talking heads. It’s simple, yet timely and original – just original enough for the filmmakers to squeeze some fresh scares out of the ol’ technological ghost chestnut and even deliver a little commentary on the nature of online dependency and abuse. It’s a clever little movie with a potent punch for those willing to give themselves over to its minimalist charms. It comes as no surprise that this thing was picked up by Universal despite being an indie production. ‘Unfriended’ is good enough to be a sequel-generating hit with the studio’s marketing machine behind it, even if it might also be the first horror movie in history that’s ideally viewed on a laptop.
The film opens with a live streaming clip of a teen named Laura’s suicide, viewed on the laptop of her former friend Blaire (Shelley Henning). Soon, Blaire indulges in a PG-13 friendly racy Skype chat with her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) before they’re interrupted at precisely the wrong moment by a few friends for a group Skype.
The gang starts goofing off together when they notice a mysterious stranger in their chat named billie227. None of them know who that is, but soon they all get messages from the deceased Laura’s Facebook account. Bille227 takes credit and starts playing havoc with their social media feeds. It becomes clear that they’re dealing with the world’s first online ghost, one who was driven to suicide through social media bullying and has some dastardly plans in store for this John Hughes-ish gang of digitally obsessed adolescent nincompoops. If any of them dares to leave the chat, they will die. Unfortunately, billie227 also has a few ways of making sure that they die if they stay on Skype too.
The gimmick is sound and the delivery is even better. With up to six screens of actors’ faces competing for screen time at once, it’s almost experimental. All the cuts are cleverly covered in digital glitches. By design, any conventional use of movie scare and suspense grammar is completely absent. Yet director Levan Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves give viewers as many ghostly shocks as needed; they just arrive in unexpected ways. A download task bar is milked for genuine suspense. The soundtrack comes through a Spotify account. Even Chat Roulette pops up as a last minute resort for help. This all flows naturally into the story.
The cast all fare surprisingly well within their little boxes, and the filmmakers give them plenty of harsh drama to blast off each other between the ghostly shenanigans. Sure, the movie features haunting tropes, gore gags and plot twists that have all popped up in other movies before, but the presentation shifts gears just enough to make the old creaky premises run smoothly again. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the script is dialed-in and focused to such an extent that there’s never too much spare time to dwell on logic.
If all that sounds like a nauseatingly calculated attempt to target a Millennial audience through all their favorite digital toys, fear not. Gabriadze and Greaves clearly deliver a movie that they wanted to make, not one that a studio considered profitable. (That’s how the trailer was conceived and why it made the movie look so much worse than it actually is.) What’s most refreshing right from the start is the way the filmmakers never bother to explain how any of the many programs and apps the characters use work. There’s no need. We’re all dialed in. That’s kind of the point of the whole damn project.
One of the most endearing aspects of ‘Unfriended’ is the fact that the filmmakers are actually trying to say something. Broadly, it’s obviously all rooted in cyber bullying. That goes without saying. But pull back a little further and the entire thing is also about digital obsession. That the entire world of the movie takes place on a computer is no real surprise, because that’s exactly where most of the social lives of these characters would take place. Turning it into a threat is just as jarringly fresh as when John Carpenter first milked the suburbs for hidden dangers in ‘Halloween’.
Thankfully, the software storytelling never feels like it’s being flaunted for the sake of it, and the movie wisely never takes its digital obsession overly seriously. It’s as much a sly mockery of the world of digital windows that we box ourselves into as a spooky inverse of computer comforts. Text lies, Chat Roulette pervs, and even secret torrenting pop up for giggles amidst the jump scares and creep-outs.
‘Unfriended’ is an entertainment factory laced with satirical bite and genuine shocks. It’s a wonderful little horror movie well deserving the studio attention because it succeeds through ideas, ingenuity and execution rather than anything resembling glossy production values. The only flat-out bum note in the movie is a CGI-heavy final jump scare that feels like it was tacked on for the sake of scale by Universal. Hopefully that’s not a ten-second metaphor for how ‘Unfriended’ will be spoiled immediately by needlessly expensive sequels.