Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
If you’re going to make a teen slasher film (a la Friday the 13th) without well-developed or even likable main characters, you have to have A) good commentary with an underlying theme & message, B) a clever gimmick, or C) both. “Unfriended” is a horror film that has both. The characters in distress are mostly terrible people and even those who are seen in the beginning as somewhat-decent human beings have had their unforgivable sins exposed by the time the film is over.
“Unfriended” has received some scathing reviews from critics because the film leans us toward anticipating these characters’ deaths, and they’ve also criticized the film’s central gimmick, which is that the whole thing takes place from the laptop screen of one of our main characters, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who converses with her friends on Skype. We see her video-chat as well as multitask online. The film is presented in real time and the story is told from her laptop screen, and I can understand if you can’t get past this gimmick, which at times does get distracting. I was able to get past it and accept what the story would throw at me, which, as it turns out, was more than I expected. But before I get into that, let’s talk about the setup:
A high-school student named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killed herself after a humiliating video of which she was the subject went viral. (Someone recorded the suicide and THAT video also went viral.) One year later, six of her classmates, including Blaire, are chatting together on Skype. But there seems to be someone joining them whose identity isn’t revealed. They can’t delete or hang up on the anonymous visitor and they assume it’s a glitch at first…until it starts messaging them. And not only that…but it’s using Laura’s account. Things get even stranger before they get dangerous, as the visitor claims to be Laura and wants to play a deadly game while also exposing dark secrets. It becomes clear that this is not a normal hacker and it may very well be the ghost of Laura seeking revenge on those who bullied her.
I saw “Unfriended” not only as a horror film, though it is very good at that by playing with found-footage gimmicks and cabin-in-the-woods story clichés, but also as a big punch in the face to bullies, especially cyberbullies. Many people, especially teens sadly, want attention and the Internet is the best way to do that and also to anonymously (though fake accounts) spread hatred and taunts. Even when there’s an anti-cyberbullying video online, which usually features a sad person expressing himself or herself, there are always going to be trolls commenting harshly and taunting the subject even more. But acting that way can lead to consequences on both the bully and the victim. It’s established early in the film that Laura killed herself because of the hurtful comments she received after the humiliating video was posted, and it becomes revealed more and more throughout the film that our six main characters have hurt her one way or another. Many of them die by suicidal acts (possibly caused by the malevolent spirit’s possession) and about half of their sins are revealed online for everyone to see. For example, early on, it’s discovered that Laura reached out to one of them for help soon after the video was posted—the person responded, “KILL URSELF.” That proof is exposed to everyone on Instagram.
What I really like about this film is its original, clever way of depicting teenage lifestyle and peer pressure and delivering in a subtle way the message that there are consequences for everything and if you confess your deeds, things might be a little easier. Some of these kids are not entirely bad (after all, no one is just born bad); actually, before the madness begins, we see Blaire and her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) share a playful talk with each other and you can see and feel a genuine human relationship happening on video chat and it can be indicated that when they’re with the group, they can say or do such harsh things. It’s like the film is saying to teens: If you want to try and fit in with people like this to gain popularity in school, you have to really think about what they’re doing and what you might do.
But with that message aside, “Unfriended” is still a horror film, which means each of the characters must die in gruesome ways. If you’re a horror fan and want to see these people get their comeuppances, there are some suitably ridiculous and grisly ways each of these kids get it. (Though, the foreshadowing involving props is a little too obvious to me.) The buildup and tension are well-done in that it’s not clear what is exactly going to happen and when it will happen. And it leads to a brilliant sequence in which the characters are forced to play a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever,” in which the loser dies rather than drinks, in which truths are revealed about each of the players, the kids turn on each other, and the tension level is raised highly. And I like how it’s done in a minimalist way (all told online); director Levan Gabriadze keeps things contained and plays with the cyber reality in a well-handled way.
“Unfriended” will most likely not end cyberbullying because any kind of bullying will always be around. But I admire the way in which this film tried to speak to its audience about how this behavior simply should not continue and the truth will set you free. All the actors are decent, the pacing is strong, the twists and turns within the terror are well-done, and it’s nice to see a horror film tackle a modern issue as a fun but also moralistic cautionary tale. I recommend it but only if you didn’t mind the film’s trailer—if you see the trailer and don’t want to subject yourself to the central gimmick, you won’t enjoy this movie. I looked past it and enjoyed “Unfriended.”