This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.
Towards the end of “Shock Value,” a lively and detailed account of the ’60s and ’70s horror renaissance in America cinema, author Jason Zinoman bemoans the fact that there has yet to be a great horror movie made about social media. This is something that permeates our daily lives and, more importantly, if this had been an issue during the volatile, highly politicized period that the book documents, one of those daring filmmakers would have stepped up and used our culture’s reliance on Facebook, Instagram, and more, to craft a genuinely blood-curdling chiller. While the final product may grate and befuddle as often as it spooks, “Unfriended” is, at the very least, an attempt to create that horror film that turns our daily addiction to social media into the stuff of uncanny nightmares. It might not totally succeed, but it might be worth “liking” for the attempt.
“Unfriended” is visualized through the main character’s desktop — and that’s all you see. You see a cursor floating around the screen and the character, virginal high school queen Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), visit various websites, clicking and tabbing and resizing, bouncing from one open window to the other. Blaire is obsessed with the suicide of another student (one that was, of course, captured on YouTube), and this particular night, when she aimlessly surfs the internet, happens to be the one-year anniversary of her classmate Heather Barns’ (Heather Sossaman) death. (Since Heather was cyber-bullied before her death, there’s some pretty extensive documentation.) What starts out as innocent Internet frivolity takes a dark turn towards malevolence when Blaire starts getting messages from Heather. Spooky, no?
The greatest asset of “Unfriended” is just how authentic the web browsing is. Last year’s Elijah Wood-starring “Open Windows” had a similar set-up and aesthetic approach, but eventually that film veered into the fantastic so outlandishly that it was hard to even engage with the story. Everyone knows how the internet works, so establishing the reality of the situation, especially for a movie about otherworldly online activity, is beyond key. It’s downright essential. And “Unfriended” does this marvelously: other characters (most of whom are stock high school stereotypes straight out of a John Hughes movie) are introduced via Skype; conversations are carried out over Google Chat, iChat, and Facebook message; at one point Blair asks for help by going on Chatroulette; Instagram reveals an untoward photo; a Spotify playlist doubles as the film’s soundtrack. The one unfortunate blunder, no doubt due to some sort of licensing snafu, is that at some point Blair is researching this supernatural activity and instead of going to Reddit, she visits some website that looks like a Geocities homepage from the early ’90s. Still, the fact that, during an unbelievably tense sequence, a familiar ad for free live cams pops up, is pretty genius.
It’s also nice that the movie addresses bullying in a straightforward way, and shows the kind of group mentality towards the abusive behavior as it shifts from online outrage to quiet acceptance. (One of the kids in the Skype conversation that makes up much of the movie’s run time freely states that the girl who killed herself was kind of a lousy human being and deserved to die.) This could have been preachy and one-note, but the filmmakers (led by Russian director Levan Gabriadze and producer Jason Blum) have taken great pains to give the issue some shading and complexity, even if that shading and complexity is housed in a series of unsent Facebook messages.
For all of its technological fidelity and cultural focal points, “Unfriended” still, unfortunately, misses the mark. It’s essentially a haunted revenge story with a glossy new sheen, not all that different from the Japanese horror films of the early ’00s that used technology of the time (cell phone signals, VHS tapes) to update campfire tales for a new generation. Those films felt innovative and fresh since the combination of horror tropes and cutting edge hardware created its own distinctly funky vibe. “Unfriended” gives a cursory explanation of what is happening (something to do with possession), but doesn’t invest in the horror or the characterization to a degree that anything feels as alive as the movie’s sometimes overly busy visual scheme (shout out to whoever decided to make one of the girl’s open Internet tabs feminist website Jezebel). What’s more is that we never get to really understand the girl who killed herself or precisely what fuels her afterlife shenanigans.
“Unfriended” is sometimes a blast to watch and is occasionally funny and unnerving, but by its conclusion it becomes screechy and overwrought. As the filmmakers that Zinoman chronicled can attest, it’s tough to wedge serious social issues into a movie about otherworldly possession or revenge from beyond the grave. It takes grace and tact and wit. That’s not to say that “Unfriended” lacks these things, necessarily, but it is certainly lacking them in the right quantities, and with the correct degree of finesse, to make “Unfriended” a successful horror movie. It’s diverting and energetic and should be awarded points for attempting to be the Facebook generation’s “Ringu,” but it fails to create memorable characters and is awash in tired clichés and muddy mythology. “Unfriended” will undoubtedly be a huge hit for Universal, and, according to the filmmakers, sequels have already been mapped out. Let’s hope in subsequent installments of the franchise, they can make a truly unforgettable horror movie about the age in which we live in and not just some aesthetically outstanding teen chiller. [C]