Unfriended is the most ingenuous ‘contained thriller’ to come along in some time. Sadly, it doesn’t work nearly as well as a horror film, relying on the same tired jump scares to punctuate its well-constructed suspense. Director Levan Gabriadze makes everything refreshingly barebones and tech-savvy for maximum realism. The timely nature of its subject matter, cyber-bullying, and its clever premise keep Unfriended entertaining, even if we don’t logoff completely satisfied.
One year ago, High School junior Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killed herself after an embarrassing YouTube video resulted in relentless hazing. Now, on the anniversary of her death, six of her friends are terrorized during a Skype chat by a malicious browser claiming to be Laura. If any of them logoff without Laura’s permission, they all die. It’s an elegant premise, but can it sustain our attention for 80 minutes?
The good news is that, yes, it can. The bad news is that, no, it isn’t scary.
Writer Nelson Greaves does a reasonably good job giving each of the cyber kids their own identity. Laura’s best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) remains the focus throughout Unfriended. She’s only mildly irritating and maintains her wits for the most part. She’s all dreamy-eyed over her beau, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm). They plan to make her pesky virginity a thing of the past after the Senior Prom. Their relationship, particularly their playful chat to start the film, keeps us invested in their fate until the final climactic moments. Rounding out the cavalcade of victims are the computer wizard Ken (Jacob Wysocki), the hysterical girl, Val (Courtney Halverson), and the bitchy girl, Jess (Renee Olstead). Sure, they’re little more than archetypes for teen slasher movies, but that’s really all we need to make their suffering interesting.
What really propels Unfriended to the top of the horror class is the complete dedication that director Gabriadze has to his premise. There is no fat on this story; it’s lean to the bone. There are no melodramatic subplots or distracting asides; just a bunch of kids alone in their rooms. In other words, it’s a lot like reality! We experience everything in real time, right along with the characters. Never before has obsessing over when to push the ‘send’ button generated so much tension.
Gabriadze expertly builds the suspense by hinging his story around a game of “Never have I ever…” Laura asks the incriminating questions and whoever answers in the affirmative must put down one finger on their hand. Whoever runs out of fingers first, loses. It’s one of many times when Unfriended takes something harmless—in this case, a drinking game—and turns it into something sinister or darkly comic. Pop up ads for sex chat lines, goofy forums about unexplained phenomena, and sappy love songs make this film crackle with satirical life, even if many viewers won’t appreciate it. This extra care and attention is what keeps Unfriended interesting long after it should have fizzled out.
Its timeliness, also, rings very true. At a time when Internet hazing and body-shaming is at an all-time high, Unfriended feels like a cautionary tale, much the same way Carrie did almost 40 years ago. In fact, Laura’s public humiliation stems from an impromptu gynecological mishap. Lost in their own digital haze, these teenagers are awakened to the repercussions of their callousness. There is no moralizing here, just a healthy reminder that you may feel invulnerable and anonymous behind your computer screen, but you’re always leaving a trail for someone to follow.
Despite their success at generating suspense, the filmmakers have no earthly idea how to pay scenes off. One great setup after another is squandered on a series of uninspiring jump scares. Given the methodical nature of the film, how it painstakingly creates its mood and atmosphere, it’s frustrating to have the default horror setting be dialed to ‘loud noises.’ Unfriended will make you nervous and uneasy, but it will never scare you.
Fans of suspense and contained thrillers will likely enjoy Unfriended’s claustrophobic atmosphere. True horror buffs, however, might find themselves giggling at the silliness. And it is gloriously silly in places, such as one girl’s desperate plea that her sexual infidelity was “just an accident!” Still, there is plenty of creepiness and dark humor to justify a trip to the theater. It won’t likely stem the tide of Internet hazing, but Unfriended at least tries to be about something while it’s entertaining us.