Unfriended: horror for the generation that lives (and dies) online

In horror, a genre so defined by referentiality, any speck of genuine original thought can be incredibly refreshing and dangerously risky. Horror fans have voted with their wallets and proven themselves more willing than most to accept the derivative, and the genre has progressed over decades through small, incremental evolutions in between comparatively few revolutionary outliers.1

The challenge facing horror filmmakers in the 21st century is clear: how does one stand out in a sea of cookie-cutter variations on familiar themes?

Producer Timur Bekmambetov and director Leo Gabriadze attempt to set their indie horror flick Unfriended apart by the use of a clever gimmick: the entire movie is presented as if screencast from the computer screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a high school teenager whose life is spent actioning the barrage of texts, tweets and notifications that keep her in touch with all of her friends simultaneously. She hangs out with friends in a Skype call, private conversations happen on iMessage and Facebook, and background information is helpfully doled out by clicking through search results in a browser window; all happening on screen, in real time.

Through a handful of such search results and web pages we learn that one year earlier, after being subjected to a humiliating program of cyberbullying from her peers, Blaire's friend Laura Barns committed suicide — an act that was, of course, filmed and uploaded to the internet. Now, on the anniversary of her death, Laura's vengeful spirit has forced its way into the group's digital lives to torment Blaire and her friends for their wrongdoing. As tension escalates in the group, Laura coerces each of the friends into admitting their high-school sins under threat of possession (both physical and virtual) and death. It's part Saw, part Paranormal Activity, and all ultra-modern twist on the found footage subgenre.

Though the uniqueness of the film's gimmick is questionable — an episode of the sitcom Modern Family has already gone there — it serves the film well in one critical way: today's horror fiends, who with a few keystrokes can find themselves watching actual people die on camera, will feel the understated terror of Unfriended far more viscerally than they would a film about a giant monster or a cartoonish serial killer.

Despite the supernatural themes, Unfriended feels completely authentic because of its detailed commitment to technical realism. Every app, interface and sound accurately reflects its real-life counterpart; URL bars update realistically as Blaire feverishly navigates around the web; the only music heard in the film comes from an instance of Spotify running in the background; app icons and web interfaces behave as they do in real life; spotty connections and glitchy video obfuscate what's happening on one end of a conversation. Even Laura's death video is posted to LiveLeak and not YouTube, where it would have been pulled immediately in real life.

These elements would, in any other film, be tiny and insignificant background details easily ignored, but in Unfriended their almost universal correctness helps immerse the viewer in what would otherwise be a pretty bland and unbelievable premise.

And, unfortunately, that is what lies behind the computer screen. Virtually all of the tired old horror tropes are called upon: a predictable story of misbehaving teens being punished for wrongdoing, a sadistic killer forcing their victims to play rigged games to save their lives, jump scares that are neither surprising nor particularly well executed. It's a shame that such a well made film is based on such a poor foundation, especially when the themes, clunky though they are — the admirable but misguided moral of the film seems to be "don't cyberbully people or they might come back from the dead and murder you with a hair straightener" — deserve to be explored in depth.

  1. Should we now, having lived through 16 years of found footage, place The Blair Witch Project alongside Night of the Living Dead as the two most seismic shifts in the history of horror? ↩︎︎
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