Unfriended follows a group of friends who come together one night to take part in a group Skype call. Upon starting the conversation they receive disturbing and threatening messages that appear to be from a deceased friend who killed herself a year prior. At first believing it to be a prank, the mysterious messenger begins revealing the group’s dark secrets and they soon realize that it isn’t a joke.
It’s effectively a found footage horror dressed up in ultra-modern garb, told entirely from the view of the central character’s computer screen. It attempts to smash together a cyber-mystery thriller with a Paranormal Activity-esque horror experience – a “cybernatural” horror if you will (that was actually the original title before it got changed to the less clever Unfriended). It’s stuck with the central issue of just how the hell you make watching people sitting at a computer for the entire movie – much less it just being a view of a screen – interesting and, indeed, scary.
It’s to the credit of director Levan Gabriadze, then, that the film manages to keep things dynamic and interesting enough to hold attention pretty much throughout the entire film. It helps that it’s barely 80 minutes long – in real-time, as displayed by the clock in the corner – but there’s always something intriguing happening on-screen in a way that makes your eyes dart around looking for clues as to what exactly is going on or if anything is going to pop out at you from behind the various characters sitting at their computers.
Anyone who saw indie cyberchat-themed flick uwantme2killhim? or Channel 4’s recent one-off drama Cyberbully (starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) will be in familiar territory to start off with but it goes to some pleasingly unexpected places throughout, achieving a nice sense of tightly wound tension and jolting moments of “ah so THAT’s what that meant!” realisation as the mystery unfolds.
For those over a certain age who may not have grown up with computers and social media as second nature might find that much of the film goes over their heads. But for the audience at which it’s aimed – those who live large parts of their lives online, regularly multitasking tabs while listening to Spotify and the like – it’s technically savvy and entirely relevant. It’s the same audience that tend to head out for supernatural horror in droves and so combining that with a cyber-world they recognise is a stroke of brilliance in a way. Rather ironically, however, it works better as a cautionary tale against cyber-bullying than it does an outright supernatural horror movie and the latter elements can sometimes feel a little jammed in there for the sake of it, especially towards the crescendo of an ending. But there’s just about enough spooky goings on in there to conjure a feeling of effectively uncomfortable fear of what might, and indeed does, come.
It suffers a bit in the character department in that they’re not particularly likeable (although there’s a case to be made that they’re intentionally written as such), not to mention the age-old horror issue of them making dumb decisions only there as an excuse to further the plot or force us into a jump scare situation. But it’s never enough to take you out of the movie because the techniques going around them – as well as the convincingly freaked out performances from its young cast (particularly Shelley Hennig as the lead) – keep you compelled and believing in their predicament.
It’s no instant classic by any means and will probably lose some of its power on repeat viewings. You’ll also have to leave logic at the door, even out with the supernatural element. But nevertheless, for what it aims to be, Unfriended is a fun, atmospheric and quite unsettling experience when it wants to be, one that uses its admittedly gimmicky premise to nicely unnerving effect while also having something halfway meaningful to say about the responsibility that at least should come with interacting with people online. Just when you thought the found footage genre is long past its sell-by-date, a film like this comes along and proves you can still put an interesting twist on it.