Horror cinema and online culture seem like the perfect match; the very word ‘troll’ evokes the image of a grotesque, ghoul; and indeed in their aimless malevolence, these internet figures have much in common with Jason or Chucky. However, horror and the internet have mostly made unsuccessful bedfellows; from 2008’s banal Untraceable to the gobsmackingly poor Chatroom. It is these failures that make the success of Unfriended as refreshing as it is. The film is not only an intelligent and bold twist on the tired tropes of the horror genre; but is one of the first films to engage in a sincere and insightful way with the technology that accompanies, and dictates, the daily lives of the teenagers who use them (see the recent Men, Women, and Children for how not to do it).
The major talking point of the film is that it is entirely set on a laptop screen. It’s easy to be sceptical of such a risky formal structure but Levan Gabriadze pulls it off with such wit and ingenuity that you are left unsure why such a de-vice has never been used before. The bulk of the action takes place on a group Skype call amongst five high schoolers who are all linked in some way to the suicide of teenager, Laura Barns, who killed herself after a humiliating video of her was leaked online to a torrent of abusive comments. Admittedly, the teenagers are written in such a way that they are of the ilk of obnoxious victims usually found in the land of horror, but Shelley Hennig as lead protagonist Blaire Lily anchors the bunch with her believable, vulnerable performance. It is a shame that such a unique approach to storytelling is hampered with generic, familiar characters.
The pacing is wonderfully realised as the eeriness seeps in slowly; an unknown participant can’t be deleted from their Skype conversation, embarrassing photos of one of the group are saging the group using Laura Barn’s Facebook account. As the group turn against each other, the threat of this malevolent ghost-in-the-machine becomes more pronounced; the way in which the scares are delivered using iMessage, Facebook, Skype, and even Spotify breathes new life into old horror standards. The cobwebs are thoroughly brushed off and we are ready to be fooled, and terrified, once again. Common frustrations of contemporary online culture such as Skype freezing, your significant other not replying to your iMessages, or not being able to change the track on Spotify are taken to gleefully macabre extremes.
What is so invigorating about Unfriended is that it accurately portrays the way in which social media sites and online applications create living, breathing, interconnected systems of communication and signification in which one can exist comfortably, and completely, within. Because for 83 minutes we do. And the notion of this universe being infiltrated by a vengeful, digitally omnipotent presence becomes all the more terrifying because this world is so believable.
In many Hollywood films, references to social media feels awkward and condescending, whereas in Unfriended these devices are diligently woven into the very fabric of the film itself. Many critics have championed the film as an interesting commentary on contemporary issues such as cyberbullying and internet-addiction. And this it most certainly is. But what should not be forgotten is just how well-constructed Unfriended is. While the clash of generically-written teens and unique formal framework can be jarring, it does not detract from the film’s many successes. Log on at your peril.