Unfriended handles its central gimmick so well that you can almost forgive it for being a really lousy horror movie. Almost, but not quite. Because seriously, it’s a bad horror movie in that it’s low on scares and thinks glitchy video and white kids yelling at each other passes for tension.
The central gimmick is that the whole thing takes place on the screen of a laptop, so the entire story is told through Skype, Google searches, instant messages, Facebook interactions and emails. This isn’t the first film to try this - Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows beat Unfriended to the punch - but this film is especially successful in portraying the way someone interacts with a computer. More than that, the supernatural nature of the movie allows director Levan Gabriadze to keep the characters stuck in their own rooms, avoiding the reality-bending issues of having them leave the house and still be on the computer.
All of the computer screen business is great, and it’s aided by the fact that Unfriended uses real, identifiable programs and sites. The kids are on Skype, and when the movie’s vengeful ghost wants to fuck with the lead girl by playing an ironic song, it uses Spotify. Too many movies featuring computers use them in ways that are blatantly phony; that made sense decades ago, but now everybody uses computers all the time, and we’re all very sensitive to the reality of what we’re seeing. A supernatural horror movie needs to protect that reality even more, and that is one of the places where Unfriended succeeds.
But as a horror movie the film is basically a bust. The premise has five high school seniors making plans on Skype when a mysterious sixth caller comes in. Long story short it’s the one year anniversary of the suicide of their classmate, a suicide brought on by cyberbullying that may have something to do with this group. The caller is a ghost, and it begins picking the kids off one by one while playing a deadly version of the drinking game Never Have I Ever.
The premise is fine - it’s a riff on the Japanese techno-horror stuff that became so popular over here with The Ring. Unfriended figures out how to get its ghost into the machine and does it well; everything is in place for serious scares. But the movie never gets there; despite the fact that a lot of the screen is taken up with static shots of kids looking at the camera on Skype Gabriadze never takes the opportunity to do scary things in the background. Nothing slides across the screen, nothing spooky happens at all. The film builds up to its kills with pretty obvious brown note low bass thrum, the cheap way to build tension on a physical level, but utterly without psychological impact. And when the kills do come - the ghost is able to force the kids to kill themselves - they all happen after screen blackouts, the lamest kind of jump scare. Some of the kills are interesting - a girl shoves a hot hair curler down her own throat - but we only see the aftermath, not the event.
The entire second act is given over to these kids - all unlikable, for various reasons - screaming at each other over Skype. Nelson Greaves is credited as the writer, and while this is clearly a written movie (there’s a lot of text to read over the course of the film), all of the dialogue sounds like the sort of nonsense actors spout when told to improv and not given a whole lot of direction. It’s grating, and it’s bad.
Besides the poor improv shouting the performances are, more or less, okay. The two leads, Moses Storm and Shelley Hennig, are the stand-outs, although all of the rest would be above average performers in any standard slasher. Storm is especially good in a couple of quieter moments; while his co-stars lay on the histrionics Storm seems to understand that when you’re acting right into a camera that is tight on your face it’s best to go smaller.
If Unfriended had actually been scary it would be a damn good movie. It’s a very interesting movie, partially because it’s the first movie to get internet culture pretty correct (although the ghost making memes (I’m not kidding) could be a step too far) and the first movie to portray people using computers in a totally natural, recognizable and true way. It’s also interesting because the ‘all on a computer screen’ thing makes Unfriended perhaps the first movie intended to be watched on your computer, which ends up being the default for many people anyway. As our definitions of what ‘movies’ are changes, Unfriended could be an important moment in that transition.
But it’s just not scary! It’s simply not a strong horror movie, and so while Unfriended is a well-made cinematic curiosity, it ultimately fails at its primary mission: scaring us.