Despite what certain family members (and readers) might tell you, I do admit I’m wrong occasionally. And when I saw the trailer for Unfriended, a movie set entirely on a computer desktop during a group conference call, I thought there was no way it could work. Even the title seemed – ironically – like a too-late trending topic (though it beats the previous Cybernatural, which sounds like a bareback porn site).
Well, let me go ahead and share this status: it works, and works well. Unfriended finally adds a clever twist to the rapidly decaying found-footage horror subgenre, while pulling off a modern take on Scream for the Skype generation. It could make a pretty good prank if you slipped a DVD of it into somebody’s computer while they weren’t looking, but it works best on a big screen, where each chat window is magnified to a size that allows you to appreciate each of the six lead performances.
What begins as borderline cyber-sex – a tease that will piss off dudes on date nights, and merely amuse folks like me – between Blaire (as in “Witch Project”?) and boyfriend Mitch gets interrupted by several other friends who cut in, and bring with them one anonymous caller with no onscreen avatar and no button to disconnect. By itself, such an intrusion would just be a standard annoyance, solvable by everybody simply logging off for the night. However, Blaire is also seemingly getting Facebook messages from dead friend Laura, who killed herself after a cyber-bullying video went viral on YouTube (it is to the credit of the film’s lawyers that Facebook, YouTube, Chrome, and everything else are the familiar programs and not the silly kinds of mock brands most studio horror movies traffic in).
It’s the anniversary of Laura’s death – and when the unseen extra caller starts posting embarrassing photos of the other friends all over social media, everyone starts pointing fingers. Val, the most obnoxious of the bunch, is the first to call the cops…and turn up dead after her webcam falls over. An apparent suicide, or so it looks – but then the anonymous caller, now identified as “Billie,” warns the rest of the group that anyone who hangs up and leaves the conversation will die. It’s confession time: what are everybody’s dark secrets, and will revealing them be enough to save them from whatever it is “Billie” seems to be doing?
It is important for older viewers to remember that we are watching high-school teens, and not the super-smart Wes Craven kind, but the real-world sort who make bad, selfish decisions in the heat of the moment without necessarily being bad people. While the message of the movie overall is “don’t cyber-bully,” the underlying theme is that your social media footprint, however thoughtless, will follow you around until you’re dead, and maybe even afterward. The cast, which includes Pitch Perfect‘s Jacob Wysocki and Entourage‘s Will Peltz, are uniformly good at portraying the arrogant adolescents they need to be, and director Leo Gabriadze keeps them under-made-up so they look like regular humans and not the supremely beautiful little ubermenschen of most CW shows.
Once the secrets start coming out, it can be argued that audiences will lose sympathy – these are characters who have done awful things, and not all of them by accident. But whatever is taking revenge is doing so disproportionately too – like so many online debates we have nowadays about ethics and/or sexism in whatever, the point is that no matter how bad the original actions were, or how questionable the character of the original victim, the angry counterattack waaaay overdoes it.
There are no innocents in Unfriended, and that in itself is a huge departure from so many teen horrors of the past where the final girl is the obviously pure one. Sequels are planned, and are probably inevitable since this looks like it cost about $200 to make, and it would be interesting to see how the terror proceeds, especially if the real-time gimmick is maintained. I want to know more about these people, and I like that the story I saw leaves me wanting to know more; I’m just not sure how much I’ll learn exclusively from their cyber-chats.
In the meantime, as I wrote this, my malfunctioning video card once again tag-teamed with Firefox to crash my browser screen again. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be huddled in the corner hiding from the ghost who wants to fake my suicide.