Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Unfriended is a deceptively smart horror tale about bullying in a cyber age. Told exclusively through a computer screen and mostly through interactions on Skype and Facebook, the film could have fallen into a trap of feeling socially forced or irrelevant; instead, its scares are smart, economical, and altogether rewarding. There’s an urgency that never lets up, particularly as characters are killed off at an alarming rate and in typical slasher form. Perhaps most surprising, though, is the film’s delightful sense of self, as its humor ensures the film doesn’t become too heavy-handed even as it deals with undeniably chilling themes of cyberbullying and suicide. Writer Nelson Graves and director Leo Gabriadze have crafted a narrative filled with twisted archetypes of normal horror characters, making the film a slightly refreshing and self-aware tale in a modern age. Running a scant 81 minutes, it breezes through all of its scares while letting them simmer enough for impact.
The film focuses on Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who starts off watching a suicide video on LiveLeak. It happens to be of one of her closest friends, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who took her own life one year ago from this date. Blaire calls up her boyfriend, and then talks with her friends through a Skype group chat. Yet they each start to receive mysterious messages from Laura’s online accounts. Assuming someone has hacked into the accounts and wants to torment them (it’s probably just an Internet troll, they say; oh, how wrong they are), they don’t take the threats seriously. When one of them mysteriously gets disconnected and appears to have committed suicide, the threats feel more real. They cannot leave the chat because if any of them do, they die. Laura’s supernatural presence carries through all of their devices, asking them to make up for the sins of their past and admit to everything they did that led to her emotional ruin. Blaire, the supposed good girl, has her own secrets that Laura senses, and neither will rest until they come to terms with one another.
Meta narratives are the new black now, and rightfully so; with recent successes like The Cabin in the Woods and You’re Next, the horror genre has proven ripe for social commentary as well as in need of drastic innovation. Here, the story takes what admittedly sounds like a tacky, cheap premise (let’s have the entire story take place on a computer screen!) and makes it a necessary adventure in the modern era. It’s technologically savvy and cognizant of how the Internet has changed the way we interact with one another; these characters feel deeply lonely when they are not talking to each other either through video chat or messages, and that feels cold and empty. The characters are a strange highlight of the film: what could be boring life forces are actually slight variations of the traditional Slut, Stoner, Virginal Good Girl, Aggressively Dumb Man, and Unidentifiable Love Interest. They have names but why should we even mention them? The film’s thematic impact feels slightly lessened in its middle when the story focuses on kills, but the ending is surprisingly impactful and reminds me of another bully-minded release from 2015, A Girl Like Her. Unfriended doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but it makes the ride efficiently entertaining.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)