Written by: Nelson Greaves
Directed by: Levan Gabriadze
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, and Will Peltz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Online, your memories last forever. But so do your mistakes.
Every generation deserves its prank-gone-wrong-revenge tale, if only to remind us that people—especially young people—can be pretty shitty. Herd mentality can especially awaken a capacity for cruelty, and never has it been more amplified than it has since the advent of social networking. It’s not that this generation is any worse than its predecessors—it’s just that their horrible behavior is broadcast with an unprecedented transparency. As such, it follows that Unfriended, this post-millennial era’s variation on this horror movie staple, explores the terrifying abyss that is the internet, where all our transgressions can be preserved in perpetuity. We live in a world where our sins haunt us from the digital ether, a collection of binary code waiting to destroy our lives, whether it be via public shaming or something even worse.
Unfriended deals in the latter, as these anxieties manifest in a literal ghost-in-the-machine tale that feels like it’s been ripped from current headlines. A year after Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide due to online bullying, the friends she left behind have resumed their online lives, having seemingly put the tragedy—and their roles in said tragedy—behind them, including Claire (Shelley Hennig) and her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm). When the lovebirds’ sexting session is interrupted by the rest of their friends, it’s mildly embarrassing but not as unsettling as the presence of a mysterious online guest who begins to harass the group with threats that become increasingly hostile and physical in nature. Laura—or perhaps someone pretending to be Laura—has returned to take revenge against those who wronged her.
Working from the same story template as the likes of House on Sorority Row and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Unfriended nonetheless feels fresh thanks to a clever hook that’s as relevant as it is gimmicky. The entire film—save for an ill-advised final shot—is relayed entirely via Claire’s cluttered laptop screen. Director Levan Gabriadze puts his own spin on the aesthetics in The Den and Joe Swanberg’s V/H/S segment by having audiences watch from her perspective as she shifts through assorted windows (Skype being the most prominent), with each click and each drag adding to the mounting dread. From a horror perspective, he cleverly mines the most innocuous stuff—loading screens, refreshing pages, downloading bars—for sources of tension in a way that stretches the sinking, guttural feeling of following a suspicious internet link into an 80 minute orchestra of ominous keystrokes, hesitant mouse clicks, and portentous notification alarms.
Frankly, it’s rather astounding that Gabriadze finds such terror in the mundane, and it’s arguably even more astounding that his film only occasionally capitalizes on it. Unfriended is couched in such a menacing atmosphere that its more explicit horrors need only serve as accents for the film to truly make an impact, yet only a few images and sequences are striking. When deciding between a slow burn, suggestive approach and gory splatter, Gabriadze splits the difference once the killer begins to pick off the group: one demise might be a messily-rendered suicide-via-blender, while another is more subtly captured by an unsettling freeze frame of a girl next to a bleach container. The latter is a more effective reflection of the sort of digital horrors Unfriended should explore more: here’s a victim preserved even while in death, a stark reminder of the images we’ll eventually leave behind to haunt friends and family.
So much of the film’s horror rests in these implicit moments. In this respect, Unfriended transcends its gimmick because its viewers confront how life has been altered during the past decade. Screens and connections dominate our lives whether we are conscious of them or even invite them into our lives. Disruption is a theme—both in the way technology continues to evolve and in how it literally interrupts, and Unfriended literalizes the notion with an online force that holds its victims hostage. To disconnect is to die, yet staying logged on will most certainly result in the same fate—whether the film means to or not (and this is some fairly faint subtext, honestly), it perfectly summarizes our complex relationship with the internet. One of our greatest accomplishments has become a harbor for our worst impulses. No matter what, we can't look away.
Unfriended obviously wallows in those awful instincts, so much so that its most intense moments rarely involve bloodshed but rather the trashy intrigue of high school drama. Secrets begin to cut more deeply than any physical wounds once a demented, intense game of “Never Have I Ever” forces dark confessions from the friends. As it unfolds, the game takes on twisted, Jigsaw-esque proportions (it’s worth noting the killer goes by the name of “Billie” here, perhaps a nod to Saw’s famous puppet avatar), with the group turning on each other out of pure survival. Perhaps the film refuses to completely indulge in over-the-top splatter because the visceral revenge isn’t as disturbing as realizing your best friends are awful, selfish, and heartless people hoarding destructive secrets.
Confronting one’s own shame is even more unsettling, of course, and the film threads this theme nicely through Claire, whose arc represents the only semblance of an actual story here. As predictable as this (and the mystery surrounding the video that caused Laura to kill herself in the first place) is, it taps into the primal fear that our past is never really past anymore, and that we’ll be forced to forever reckon with our mistakes. As someone caught in the nether between Gen X and Millennials, I’m grateful social networking didn’t exist when I was a dumb teenager roaming the wild west of the web (hell, I cringe at some of the stupid shit I’ve written in reviews within the past few years—I can’t imagine what 31-year-old me would think about 15-year-old me). It’s almost enough to make me feel for kids growing up in a 21st century that’s been engineered to capture and preserve their every moment, though one would hope it inspires them to be better people instead.
If Unfriended (and the headlines from which it liberally borrows) is any indication, that isn’t a likely assumption. Again, most of the film’s horrors are implicit, but it definitely strikes a nerve because its presentation has a natural, grisly pseudo-snuff quality. If its overt horror elements were a bit more impactful and its characters were more than avatars (though that somehow seems appropriate), it would feel like a definitive post-millennial effort, a sort of cyberspace riff on Carrie where the operatic Black Prom has yielded to an everyday scenario that has become all too familiar as awful tales of cyberbullying spread. Instead, it might merely endure as a document that captures its generation’s voice rather well, as it’s a shrill cacophony of frenzied Skype conversations, haywire Spotify playlists, and glitchy video footage.
Eventually, its final moment—an unnecessary grace note that echoes similarly predictable final “jolts”—reinforces its preoccupation with familiar genre imagery rather than the implied terrors of a digital void. Who needs to see an actual demon when the ones we’ve saved, uploaded, and shared are more terrifying?
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