Some of the most effective horror films scare us in places that are supposed to be safe and comfortable. Halloween made us afraid of our quiet suburban towns. Jaws made us afraid of the beach. Paranormal Activity made us afraid of our bedrooms. Now, Unfriended comes along to hit us where we all really live: the Internet.
I would recommend going into Unfriended knowing as little as possible, but let’s just say it’s a horror film following a group of friends that takes place entirely on the main character’s computer. The story plays out over Skype, Facebook, iMessage, etc, as if we have Blaire’s Macbook hooked up to the theater screen. From there, spooky shit happens. That’s all I knew going in, and I’d implore you to do the same.
Let’s address one thing right off the bat: This is not a totally unique concept, despite what you may have heard. Plenty of other horror films have taken place over computers in the past few years like The Den, a segment in V/H/S, and parts of Paranormal Activity 4 to name a few. But Unfriended steals that gimmick and perfects it, and the result is the greatest of these “technology horror” movies I’ve seen so far.
This kind of thing only works if we feel that we’re watching an actual Skype call on an actual person’s computer, and Unfriended nails that and gets all the little details right. The Skype call lags. She uses online forums. She freaks out when her boyfriend isn’t answering her on iMessage, but we don’t hear her freak out; We can just tell from the way the tone of her iMessage chat changes, a language anyone who uses the Internet to communicate is familiar with. Often Blaire begins typing, then backspaces and rephrases her thoughts, just like we all do when chatting.
Many technology-driven movies aren’t representative of how we use computers in real life, but Unfriended is set firmly in our world, is fluent in our online language, and it uses that language to communicate a lot about these people in some subtle ways. In a few scenes, the way Blaire goes back and rewords a sentence, or the way she removes a phrase from what she originally said, tells us how she’s thinking and feeling without the film voicing any of it. For those of us who grew up on the Internet, these moments ring true, and that makes it even more terrifying when everything go south.
Aside from maybe Blaire, the characters in Unfriended are often extremely unlikable, but that doesn’t mean the performances are bad. Shelley Hennig is solid as our lead, and everyone else holds their own, too. I didn’t always like the characters as people, but I believed that they were real high-schoolers, and that’s what’s important. When they’re terrible, I never got the sense that it was due to poor writing. Every word spoken feels highly calculated, and when we’re annoyed, we’re supposed to be.
The best word that can be used to describe Unfriended is “immersive.” Because the gimmick actually works and we’re convinced that this is playing out on a computer, it’s easy to forget you’re not a part of this Skype call yourself. The film makes us feel like a part of the group. There aren’t a tremendous amount of scares, with only a handful of “jump” moments throughout, but the film has a phenomenal sense of dread that builds and builds and doesn’t ever stop. I never screamed and jump out of my seat, but quite often I was incredibly uncomfortable with my hands over my mouth, fearful of what was about to happen.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to say about Unfriended: It has a message, and it’s kind of a smart movie. This is a story about our technology-driven generation, but its message isn’t as generic or old-man-sounding as “technology is ruining our friendships.” In a lot of ways, it’s about the negatives of our social-media-dominated culture and the way it can promote cyberbullying and a gang mentality, but the film doesn’t suggest any of this is because of computers. It’s just that the horrors we commit on one another have moved online, and they are now communicated in a new language. It’s not that computers or the Internet are the horrors. It’s just that this is where we live now, so naturally, it’s time some movies live there, too.
As much as I love Unfriended, part of me thinks it shouldn’t be in theaters. This would be far more powerful as a Video on Demand film, and I think the ideal viewing experience would be watching it on a computer, full screened with headphones in. Then, you can really pretend Blaire’s screen is your screen, and that would provide an extra layer of immersion. For a movie so progressive and aware of our generation, and where computers have such a major role to play, it’s strange to be seeing it in a theater instead of where it belongs: a computer.
Unfriended isn’t a perfect film, and it does suffer from some of the downfalls of modern horror. Its low budget can be a crutch, and it’s easy to imagine how a higher budget could have helped. As with most found-footage movies, there are some glaring logic issues, like why the characters are bothering to carry around their computers when they’re about to be murdered. Just so we can see it?
Those occasional problems only make it feel more like a defining movie of this decade of horror, though. It’s like an 83 minute primer on everything that’s good and bad about the genre today. Plus, it’s about issues we’re facing now, it speaks our language, it feels plugged in to the online world, and it’s specifically designed to scare all of us who grew up on the Internet. It may not age well in 20 years when technology has shifted, but for now, Unfriended really, truly works. If I was asked to pick one movie to define horror in the 2010s so far, this would be it.