Set entirely on a laptop screen, and mostly on Skype, Unfriended embraces and attempts to exploit the glitch. Interference and blur all obscure or mislead, the familiarity of our online activity and frustration meant to lull us into a scare. At one point, the screen freezes. The five friends on a group skype and their uninvited guest stare on at the still image of a sixth pal. Of course, the audience is suspect of the error, anxious something supernatural, something evil is afoot. This image is the only one to truly induce dread in Unfriended. Its the setup for a patient scare, one that actually feels of our era. The audience, staring at the fixed figure, a pixelated portrait, confronts the fact that thats how we look now. Our deaths in life and on film will no longer be accompanied by perfect photos of great memories, but washed out, translucent snaps of us in a laundry room. We leave a digital trail and lead a digital afterlife, and have no control over how it portrays us, or how eerily it connects with friends.
Unfortunately, Unfriended is rarely again as thoughtful or as spooky, steering clear of the inherent creepiness of most of our online activity in favor of more standard fright scenarios. A shame, because as far as character behavior goes, its likely our most authentic depiction of operating and existing on a screen.
Laura Barns killed herself. Its how Unfriended opens, an unceremonious LiveLeak capture of the act. After seeing this sad girl commit the act, we get a look at the video which weighed so heavily on her, a taunting clip of an embarrassing night out. Were aware someone is watching with us, Blaire, and were unsure for much of the film if its out of guilt or of grief. Maybe both. Soon, Blaires boyfriend Mitch cuts in and their Skype flirtation takes a sexually violent turn. Its a heavy few moments, suicide followed by kink, all to then reveal Blaire as a virgin and the threat of her dad being able to kick Mitchs ass. These are still just kids online, acting beyond their years and maybe unsure of the effects. As the conversation gets racier, the rest of Mitch and Blaires buds join and a seemingly normal videochat hang sesh ensues, except for the unmarked intruder, one claiming to be poor Laura Barns.
This seeming ghost of Laura taunts the friends via Skype, but also separately via Facebook, Gmail and more, and the way director Levan Gabriadze moves between windows and tabs is frankly stunning. Unfriended is often a seamless vision of the way we move between programs, juggling conversations online, oscillating between thoughts intimate and broad, chats mournful and crass, and picking a soundtrack to it all. Its here Gabriadze and star Shelley Henning create real character work with hesitant typing and reediting of sentences, with private instant messages on the side akin to whispers at a party.
If the horror of the film had matched this youthful authenticity, Unfriended would likely be something really special. Instead, the movie is interested in familiar peek-a-boo sequences as the entity forces her bullies to in turn kill themselves on video. None of the later deaths are staged with such dread or heaviness as that still image however. As lip service is paid to some possession explanation, it all turns into a storm of shrill shocks, the sound of screaming over Skype revealing itself to be the most grating on Earth.