There are two major questions circling Unfriended, the new social media focused teen slasher film by Levan Gabriadze:
- Can you make a successful film set exclusively on a computer screen?
- Can you make a successful horror film set exclusively on a computer screen?
Surprisingly, the answer to the first question is a resounding ‘yes’. This is a gimmick movie to be sure, but it’s a gimmick that works brilliantly. Creative use of the technology we are all familiar with in service of narrative makes for an uncommonly transfixing experience. In a way, social media is kind of a new form of language with its own nuances and quirks, and the film taps into this enthusiastically.
Gabriadze also clearly realizes that successful horror movies tend to tap into prominent social issues of the day. Though heavy-handed and at times eye-rolling in its blunt portrayal of cyberbullying, the film still manages to deliver one of the best portrayals of the millennial generation’s relationship with technology yet. Though dialogue gets progressively cheesier and less indicative of how teenagers actually talk, the film mines the generation’s penchant for using the internet to conceal, manipulate, and hurt with earnest intentions. Hilariously, it manages to be a far more competent ‘the world we live in now’ movie than last year’s Men, Women & Children.
Though we are never shown anything that isn’t displayed on the 2D plane of the protagonist Blaire’s laptop monitor, the film constantly takes advantage of the conceit to teach us more about her and her group of douche friends (the actors do fine jobs, but there are no true standouts). Little details, like the tabs she has open on her browser, the files on her desktop, the music in her playlist, and the things she types but never actually sends reveals character development and backstory seamlessly and unobtrusively. This novel method of fleshing out characters and doling out exposition kept my eyes locked to the screen for the entirety of the film (which is a under an hour and a half long). Paranormal Activity also earned much of its appeal by encouraging viewers to constantly constantly scan the screen for any small or abnormal details, and Unfriended takes this to the next level and opens a whole new door of possibilities yet to be explored. Few movies are so uniquely engaging, regardless of genre.
Trouble is, this is a horror movie, and the blunt truth is that it isn’t very scary. In other words, the answer to question #2 is a resounding, ‘eh, not really.’ Early on, there are some effectively creepy elements like the sight of a silent, lurking default Skype icon that the teens can’t get rid of. Webcam artifacting can end up being pretty disturbing in real life, morphing people’s faces and dropping out audio, and you better believe it’s used here. In fact, as becomes the case for most of its scare tactics, it ends up overused to the point where it loses its potency.
And because of how ridiculous it would be that a ghost would haunt someone by, say, not letting them exit out of a Youtube video or mute a song, most of the audience I saw the film with (myself included) were laughing at most of the film’s attempts to startle us. More unfortunate is that when the film actually tries for comedy, it consistently hits its mark because of how relatable the movie is for those who spend hours per day with the same technology. Unfriended is accidentally a much better comedy than horror film, but that isn’t necessarily an insult.
I find it almost sad that this movie fully demonstrates how social media can be used to tell a story in subtle, innovative ways, yet it’s wasted on a film that is otherwise only a moderate success. If a comedy or a drama were to try and use this same gimmick, it would likely be accused of copying Unfriended. For now, this feels like a one-and-done, barring the likely possibility of sequels. It may not be the most artfully done horror flick (The Babadook and It Follows this is certainly not). For what its worth, though, Unfriended is still a brief, creative treat and an admirable experiment in mainstream filmmaking. It’s a genuinely good movie… just not a very good horror movie.
Score: 3.5 out of 5