Back in 2007, Paranormal Activity was making the waves at horror festivals, and it had the perfect, creepy ending to cap off the whole experience. Sadly, that ending never made it to theaters. Oren Peli’s film has a very “home movie” feel to it so that it’s as if we’re peering into a couple’s life rather than watching a generic horror production cranked out by the studios. By the end of the third act, Katie has become possessed by a mysterious entity living in the house, and the way the movie depicts her possession is ingeniously simple. Her head doesn’t spin around, and she doesn’t crawl on the ceiling. She just behaves differently in a subtle way, like talking slower or standing still for hours at a time. We were seeing a possession the way it might actually play out, not in the way it plays out in the world of Hollywood.
The original ending was true to that. The possessed Katie murders her boyfriend Micah off screen, then slowly comes up to the bedroom and sits on the floor. She rocks back and forth, and the footage speeds up to show us Katie remaining in the exact same spot for days on end, missing dozens of phone calls and never once eating or sleeping. Eventually, her friends become concerned enough that the police arrive, and they’re forced to shoot Katie when she comes at them with a knife. It comes across as horrifically authentic, and that fits with the tone of the rest of the film. As the movie ends with a picture of Katie and Micah before fading to black, it really does feel like we just watched an actual couple die.
When it was time to be released in theaters nationwide, though, the studio decided this didn’t go far enough. They wanted to leave audiences with one final jolt – even though the rest of the movie didn’t have many jump scares – so they would leave the cinema feeling scared. The studio was probably worried that a more restrained ending wouldn’t get people talking, and moviegoers wouldn’t appreciate a “less is more” approach. So in the theatrical ending, and the ending you’ll find on all current versions of the film, Katie kills Micah, slowly walks up the stairs, throws his body across the room, crawls up to the camera, and her face morphs as she lunges at us. Within seconds, this becomes a studio horror film, indistinguishable from every other possession story we’ve seen. It’s no longer as interesting.
I say all this because for similar reasons, the ending of Unfriended also nearly destroys the entire point of the film in service of having one last scare. It’s as if these studios are convinced we’re so dumb that we’ll forget the movie was any good unless it ends with something jumping at the camera. To delve into this, we’re going to have to get into spoilers, so if you have not seen Unfriended – and you really should – turn away.
Alright. So the movie is about a group of teenagers whose friend Laura died a year prior. She was horribly bullied when an embarrassing video of her at a party was posted online, and it basically ruined her reputation. In the aftermath, Laura commits suicide. A year later, the group begins getting mysterious messages from Laura’s social media accounts.
It soon becomes clear that this genuinely is Laura and that her spirit is somehow returning through the online world to punish these people for either directly or indirectly causing her suicide. As the rest of the movie plays out, we slowly learn all of their secrets and how each one bullied Laura, with the end revealing the biggest culprit was Blaire, our main character. On social media, it appears that she and Laura are great friends, posing together in pictures and behaving lovingly towards one another. But not only is this relationship totally fake, but Blaire was actually the one who betrayed Laura and posted the embarrassing video online.
For a while, Unfriended seems like it’s going to be a cautionary tale about cyberbullying. Each of these characters was friends with Laura in theory, but all talked behind her back and were quick to bully and make fun of her during her darkest hour. In the final moments, when Blaire is asked to own up to her actions, she defends herself by saying she didn’t mean it, and that everyone was writing those comments, so she simply joined in. Blaire probably wouldn’t be the kind of person to beat up Laura in the schoolyard, but behind the comfort of her computer screen and with the gang mentality that online comments lead to, she becomes an abusive individual who deserves punishment.
As the last act is playing out, it appears we’re working towards a really interesting conclusion. Because Blaire posted the video, she is essentially the one who is most responsible for Laura’s suicide. Because of that, as all of Blaire’s friends die throughout, it’s her fault. Sure, they were all responsible for their own actions and comments, but if Blaire hadn’t betrayed Laura, none of these events would have transpired.
So it seems that the movie will end with Blaire facing the ultimate punishment. Laura posts the video online, which proves that Blaire was the one who taped the Laura party video. Everyone immediately despises her, blaming her for the suicide and calling her a monster. Blaire has been exposed for the bully she is, and she’s facing the consequences. For the betrayal, she will have to live in a world where her closest friends are dead because of her, and everyone else she knows sees her for the cruel person she is.
Before she died, Laura had lost all of her friends and her reputation was ruined forever. As punishment for her actions, that’s what happens to Blaire: She loses all her friends, literally this time, and has her reputation ruined forever. It’s a twisted, dark ending that ties everything together and makes us understand what the point of Laura’s terror was. She isn’t merely a spirit come back from the dead to mindlessly kill. She was carrying out a specific plan to punish those responsible for her death and to leave her primary torturer to experience the suffering she did.
But then Unfriended throws that all out the window. The movie could have conceivably ended with Blaire watching helplessly as all the negative comments about her flooded in. Maybe she breaks down in tears and shuts her computer, and the credits roll. I don’t know exactly what went on behind the scenes of Unfriended, but like with Paranormal Activity, the film almost completely abandons what made it effective in favor of a final scare. Blaire’s laptop is closed by some mysterious entity as the format is broken, and Laura’s ghost lunges at the camera. Presumably, then, Laura has just killed Blaire.
Why? What’s the point? Why shame Blaire in this way if she was just going to kill Blaire moments later? Blaire’s punishment was to read some mean online comments for about fifteen seconds before being murdered. Right away, Laura’s revenge plan, which seemed to be a brilliant and calculated way to get all of Blaire’s friends to turn on one another and force her to live with the aftermath, turns into just another story of a ghost coming back and killing everyone. Leaving Blaire alive at the end would have been so much more interesting, but the studio presumably figured we’d be annoyed by that and by not seeing Laura’s ghost one last time. An interesting and complex ending, the ending that the story is naturally working towards, is destroyed thanks to the need to adhere to genre conventions.
I still love Unfriended, and of course a subpar ending isn’t enough to ruin all that came before. But it’s definitely a missed opportunity to give a somewhat complex story a complex ending, not just serving up the generic horror killings we would expect. It could have been so much more.