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The Death-by-Skype Horror Movie ‘Unfriended’ Is an Unlikely Critical Hit

The Death-by-Skype Horror Movie 'Unfriended' Is an Unlikely Critical Hit

Imagine a version of “Final Destination” where instead of falling prey to the Rube Goldberg machine of death, the unlucky teenagers are trapped in an online chat where logging off means shutting down for good. Now imagine you’re stuck in that chat as well, powerless to so much as toggle into a different window. That’s what it’s like watching “Unfriended,” which combines the ineluctable herd-thinning of a slasher movie with the agony of watching someone else make mistakes on a computer. 

The idea behind “Unfriended,” the brainwave of “Wanted’s” Timur Bekmambetov, is a doozy. The entire movie plays out on a MacBook screen, where six high school students —plus a mysterious seventh party — virtually reconvene on the one-year anniversary of their classmate Laura Barns’ death. The dead girl’s suicide, which plays out as a shaky viral clip at the movie’s start, was prompted by a humiliating video and the harassment of people she took to be her friends. In essence, she was cyberbullied to death.

Given that horror-movie victims are rarely as innocent as they seem, it’s no surprise that “Unfriended’s” teens turn out to be more involved in Laura’s death than we at first suspect. In fact, there’s almost nothing surprising about “Unfriended,” except for the way it steers us through its entirely predictable series of revelations and gruesome deaths. The entire movie — well, almost the entire movie — is confined to the desktop of Laura’s former friend Blaire, who flips between Skype, iMessage and various Safari windows like a veteran multitasker. (Rather than a score, the music comes from Blaire’s Spotify acccount.) Instead of ominous figures lurking in the shadows, menace is conveyed by notifications from Facebook, where Laura’s account has suddenly gone active and started sending out messages. Where the “Paranormal Activity” movies train their audiences to fear the slightest hint of movement in an apparently empty room, “Unfriended” provokes chills with the pulsating dots of an in-progress IM. Never has the status “Your message was seen” seemed so terrifying.

Despite “Unfriended’s” novel (if not quite pioneering) framing device, director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves leave a lot of possibilities untapped; the conceit is strong enough for a great movie, not just an intriguingly clever one. But it’s enough to hook most critics, who are giving the movie surprisingly strong reviews. (Most movies of its kind don’t screen in advance, but Universal must have guessed that they’d get at least a small groundswell of critical support, and they were right.) But even if it’s more interesting than it is good, “Unfriended” grabs a hold of some powerful cultural currents and taps into something a lot more frightening than the ghost of one dead girl.

More reviews of “Unfriended”

Andrew Lapin, NPR

“Unfriended,” which was originally titled “Cybernatural,” isn’t the first film to take place entirely over the Internet. Some previous tech horror, including the Elijah Wood-starring “Open Windows,” already popped that bubble. But it is the first to so accurately depict the way today’s youth piece together their online lives. The girl whose desktop we are peering at is Blaire (Shelley Hennig), whose life unfolds onscreen — a digital collage as character sketch. By peering at her Facebook page, YouTube videos and browsing history, we know she’s a hard partier with a goober boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm), a checkered history with Laura and a Teen Wolf obsession (Hennig’s recurring role on the show might explain that one). The efficient exposition is entirely composed of a LiveLeak video and half a YouTube clip. It’s supremely goofy and not scary in the slightest, but the movie is speaking the right language.

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

Broken down to its essence, “Unfriended” is a slasher movie, a revenge flick about a bunch of faintly unlikable kids being harassed by someone who knows what they did last April. It’s the execution, the sheer formal ingenuity, that will make horror buffs reach for the “like” button. The film turns the quirks and glitches of modern technology into tools of the scaring trade. Every frozen webcam image generates suspense, every interruption of the video feed is a strategic blackout. 

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice

It occasionally inspires the kind of frustration you feel when looking over a shoulder: No, don’t click there, you fool! The film’s adept at the sinking something’s not right creepiness too few horror films dig into: Early on, one teen’s Facebook is hijacked to post humiliating photos of another friend — a silly idea, but there’s a truer terror in the way that that ghost-hacked Facebook account won’t let its owner delete them. Anyone who’s ever shared something online and then thought better of it can relate, especially once the outside world starts pinging in with “OMG”s as comments. Director Levan Gabriadze summons up exquisite unease just by the way a cursor darts about a desktop.

David Edelstein, New York

It’s hard to imagine what audiences of 25 years ago would have made of a film with such a de-centered mise-en-scène (pardon my French). Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, among others, have induced jitters with the use of split screens, but I can’t remember ever trying to look so many places at once. These kids today, I’ll tell ya, can handle it better than I can, but I’d bet all of us came out feeling rattled by our eyes’ (and brains’) inability to rest for an hour and a half. The point is that the audience knows this syntax inside out. Everyone will get the joke when what is often called “the spinning wheel of death” denotes … you know.

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

If the horror is dispensed inferentially, the moral and ethical judgments are piled on mercilessly in what is, after all, an exploitation flick, not a sociology textbook. The kids aren’t just flawed, or casually malicious, they’re an adult’s worst nightmare of what their generation is coming to, and their awfulness may be an attraction for young audiences, as well as a flagrant offense against fair play.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

Yes, the film touches on cyberbullying and this generation’s hyperconnectivity, but it is really just the classic “Our sins are coming back to haunt us!” chestnut updated for the social media age. The film maintains its energy throughout and uses its specific format to create maximum suspense over seemingly trivial moments. You will be surprised how engaged you will be watching six kids talking to each other on Skype and using various kinds of online IM chat services, and the way this film keeps finding new ways to both up the stakes and vary the content is downright remarkable.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times

Much of the live-action material was shot by the actors, using GoPro cameras. As in Skype exchanges, their faces tend to loom in their respective displays, which Mr. Gabriadze arranges and rearranges like a blackjack dealer dealing assorted hands. Mr. Gabriadze and his postproduction team also play around with the image (and sound) because, as is often the case these days, much of what you’re watching is animation. They pixelate, smear and split the visuals, and interrupt and punctuate the dialogue with ominous crackles and static. These manipulations torque the tension and at times forecast other, more substantive violence to come. Time and again, the characters break apart aurally and visually, becoming near-ghosts in their own machine world.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

“Unfriended” is often more innovative than scary, too, with some memorable but not particularly chilling and hilariously foreshadowed death scenes. (Kids, if you’re being menaced by the spirit of a dead friend online, take the dangerous household appliances into a different room.) The innovation goes a long way, though, as does a wicked sense of humor that sends Blaire following a search trail to message boards offering advice about what to do when you get a message from the dead. Typical of the Internet, the advice turns out to be pretty lousy. Sometimes it’s the way technology falls short that makes it scary.

Matt Prigge, Metro

Most films that treat teens like meat to be hacked and slaughtered tend to be either puritanical — executing horndogs for the crime of having sex — or simply heartless. In “Unfriended” the victims don’t deserve death per se, but they’re far from pure. Even the “final girl” trope — the good virgin who will survive amidst the corpses of her sinful friends — gets turned on its head. Movies that sate both chatting Saturday night movie audiences and grad students looking for a robust paper is rare, so cherish it.

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