Most conventional horror films fall somewhere on the sadomasochistic continuum. They either allow the audience to assume the role of sadist, monitoring the physical and psychological torment of the film’s protagonists like Jigsaw peering through his surveillance cameras, or manoeuvre viewers into enduring the victims’ ordeals, much like a masochist cherishing their punishment. While I can understand the appeal of the former – and I’ve chuckled at the hapless teenagers of cheap slasher films on more than a few occasions – I’m invariably drawn to the masochistic movies. When executed well, these films engender sympathy along with terror; you root for the characters, not against them.
Unfriended’s gimmick promises to position the film squarely in the masochistic camp of horror filmmaking. Much like Open Windows – or Joe Swanberg’s V/H/S short – the entirety of the film occurs in the claustrophobic confines of a teenage girl’s laptop screen. We look through Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig’s) eyes as she conducts the quotidian procrastination of modern life: browsing through the web, passing time on Facebook, flirting with her boyfriend (Moses Storm) over Skype.
These familiar pastimes – instant messaging and uploading videos and Spotify playlists – assume a sinister tenor when their friends – Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Adam (Will Peltz) and Jess (Renee Olstead) – intrude upon her Skype liaison … and bring along a mysterious, unnamed sixth participant who they are unable to hang up upon. Things take a turn for the supernatural – and the horrific – when the group starts receiving messages from Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who’d committed suicide a year prior in the wake of an embarrassing video (titled, subtly enough, “LAURA BARNS KILL URSELF”). Dun-dun-dun and so forth.
This gimmick is the main thing distinguishing Unfriended from the torrent of vengeful ghost films out there. The execution is undeniably clever – backstory established through hastily-Googled news stories, character established through obvious flourishes like Facebook “friendships” and little details like the messages Blaire types but never sends. The computer-screen conceit borrows the best elements of found-footage films – subjective intensity and real-time temporality – while deleting the clumsy narrative contrivances needed to explain why on earth someone is still carrying a camera around mid-zombie attack.
Unfortunately, that gimmick proves to be the only thing setting Unfriended apart. And look, it’s a good gimmick. I appreciate the way it captures little moments heretofore unseen on the big screen, like agonising over how to convey the right emotion via instant message, or the interminable tension of someone simply disappearing from said instant messaging without warning.
But in terms of character development, it falls short of the potential offered by this approach. Case in point: if you pay attention to the profile pictures of Blaire’s friends in her Facebook inbox, the pictures and names swap around intermittently as the film progresses – Unfriended should be rewarding attention to detail from its audience, not revealing its shambolic structure. That shallowness is found in the screenplay itself, which begins piling on ‘characterisation’ around the midpoint that consists of a laundry list of shitty things these prospective victims have done in the recent past. It’s here that the film tips its hand to its true agenda – not a sympathetic portrait of the motivations and ramifications of cyberbullying, but a moralistic screed where we watch a half-dozen teenagers get their just-desserts for their immoral online conduct. Unfriended isn’t interested in drawing us into Blaire’s head, but in positioning as judges of her apparently unforgivable behaviour. It’s not effective as any sort of reflection on cyberbullying while being entirely predictable (I can’t imagine anyone being surprised to learn that the victims played crucial roles in the circumstances surrounding Laura’s death).
Perhaps I’m being unrealistic expecting any kind of nuance; after all, this is a micro-budget horror film set entirely on Skype. But my major complaint centres on the film’s scares – or lack thereof.
The computer screen has so much potential as a source of terror (Swanberg’s aforementioned V/H/S segment was proof of that), but it’s rarely leveraged effectively here. Perhaps – as with my masochistic movie leanings – I’m simply betraying my personal preference here, but I have a great deal of fondness for horror films that make great use of the outskirts of the frame. Great horror – like Halloween or The Innocents – provides you with carefully-composed tableaux and then invites you to inspect their peripheries for the boogeymen that may be lurking there.
The opportunity to do the same here – to say, draw your attention to a chat window on the left of the screen while, unnoticed, something horrible begins to happen in a window open on the right – is abundant yet rarely if ever exploited. For the most, we have one window at a time – and that’s where the action’s happening (the aforementioned Open Windows is an effective demonstration of what a creative filmmaker can do with the real estate offered by a computer screen). The inconsistency of the Skype streams – complete with frozen frames and datamoshing that obscures the teenagers behind a haze of digital distortion – is used creatively, granted, but the actual scares are abrupt and for the most part absent any mounting suspense.
There’s enough innovation on display in Unfriended that I’m reluctant to dismiss it altogether (and, certainly, a sub-90 minute runtime is a virtue in this sort of movie). But this feels like a first draft; a promising template that’s adequate when it should have been ambitious (perhaps, as Jesse Thompson suggested, we’ll see that in Unfriended 2: It Unfollows?). It’s good to see genre filmmakers applying this sort of inventiveness; I just wish there was a little more craft go with it.