I saw this one back when it was in theaters and recently decided to check it out again. First impression? It plays much better on a big screen. I had trouble reading some of the text on the screen with the smaller version, though to be fair, that might have been because the DVD I had was scratched. Sadly that’s the risk of buying movies second-hand. I looked at some of the reviews on Amazon.com and no one else seems to be having this problem, so I’m inclined to say it’s my version. Oh well.
Unfriended is a pretty simple ghost story. A student named Laura Barnes commits suicide after a humiliating video of her is posted online. A year later, a group of her surviving classmates are having a nighttime Skype call when they find themselves besieged by someone – or something – using Laura’s Skype account to reveal their darkest secrets. Things go from petty meanness to outright murder in due time, and the longer Laura waits to find out who posted the video that led to her suicide, the more bodies she’ll drop. Almost the entire film takes place on a computer screen, which is its most notable feature.
I’ve seen a couple horror films that take place entirely on computer screens, including The Den (2013) and a few of the V/H/S shorts, but have yet to find one that doesn’t wear out its welcome before the end – or at least not one that extends to feature length. This particular brand of found footage seems to work best when done as a short, under thirty minutes. It tends to wear thin around the last third in features, something that both Unfriended and The Den – clearly the superior of the two – suffered from. This isn’t to say that the format doesn’t do interesting things, visually speaking, but that all the examples that I’ve seen appeared to run out of ideas before the end. Maybe someone will come up with a version that doesn’t fade out during the final third, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Still, I’m not discounting this format entirely, even for feature films. Unfriended does have some fun tricks up its sleeves, especially in the beginning. Just look at the popup adds that subtly foreshadow the mayhem to come, and the difference between what the characters are saying in the group chat versus what they’re texting to each other privately. Additionally, the main POV character, Blaire, has a habit of rewriting her texts before she sends them, giving the audience an insight into her thought process. For a film with an extremely static and sparse setting, Unfriended does a fair job of keeping the image dynamic and interesting – which is a feat, considering all we see are Skype videos and Internet searches.
All that being said, Unfriended starts to stumble when the bodies hit the floor. For whatever reason, the Skype format just does not allow for dramatic death scenes. All of the deaths, to a one, felt comical and over-played, which ruined the tone that the film was clearly going for. The last third also saw the cast devolve into screaming caricatures of themselves, which just isn’t interesting to look at. All of the creative film work and camera tricks were done early on. It felt like Unfriended just ran out of steam at the end, which is a damn shame. The beginning was solid and not obvious about its creepiness – the tension built slowly as secrets were revealed, and it was interesting to try and see how the group worked together to try and deal with the situation, versus when they inevitably turned on each other.
Which leads me to the bigger problem with Unfriended. It’s said multiple times by multiple characters that while Laura’s death was unfortunate, she was also a bully and a horrible person, disliked by everyone. The problem is, we don’t see any proof of this – all we have are the testimonies of people who the film proves several times over are pretty horrible themselves, with crimes ranging from starting rumors to raping a fellow student. These things aren’t implied: they’re stated directly. It’s one thing to have a film with unsympathetic protagonists, but Unfriended expects the audience to go along with the group’s assertion that Laura – or Laura’s ghost – is a horrible monster with disproportionate ideas about revenge. From what Unfriended shows us, Laura – however brutal her retribution may be – actually does have a point. Was she a bad person when she was alive? Maybe, but the audience has no way of knowing that. All I saw was a wronged spirit taking revenge on a group of teenagers who did horrible, awful things while maintaining their squeaky clean reputations. This could have been a debate about the culture of teenagers in the age of camera phones and Facebook, where mistakes and acts of seemingly petty cruelty have the potential to become something much worse, but Unfriended doesn’t delve deep enough to really have a conversation about any of the events it depicts. It begins with an interesting premise and ends with slasher stereotypes twenty years out of date. It tries, but it doesn’t quite get there. Unfriended could have used a few more drafts of the script to really flesh out its ideas, and try to articulate exactly why Laura’s revenge might not be justified – after all, she’s going after a group of cruel hypocrites, one of whom is an actual rapist, but whose ultimate crime in the film seems to be (consensual) sex with his best friend’s girlfriend.
What the fuck. I’m really not in the mood to spell out what’s wrong with that for everyone, but what the fuck. This is why horror films get a bad rap. As filmmakers, we’re damn well capable of doing better than that, and the audience is justified in demanding more. Do not pass go, Unfriended, do not collect twenty dollars. You fucked up.
In short, we have unlikable, unsympathetic rich white and presumably straight teenagers getting their comeuppance from an angry ghost, and no real reason to sympathize with the supposed victims. Still, despite its missteps, I do like what Unfriended was attempting to do, and the creepy setup at the beginning. Give it a watch, but be aware of its flaws. There are many.