A group Skype session is invaded by an angry spirit in Unfriended, a clever and timely horror film. It’s set on the one-year anniversary of a high school cyberbullying victim’s suicide. The dead girl’s friends happen to be Skyping with each other this night, talking about typical teen topics – relationships, mind-altering substances, parties, and sex. But a mystery person – a blank profile picture lurking in the corner – has joined their chat. They can’t hang up on it. They can’t click on it. They disconnect and call back. It’s still there, presumably watching and listening. And then the mystery Skyper starts typing threatening clairvoyant messages. Soon the teens are glued to their screens, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong online, as even worse fates befall them in the real world.
The movie is shot entirely through a computer display, the whole frame one character’s laptop screen. Performers are isolated in their own chat boxes, as layers of windows and tabs provide plot information, the roaming cursor drawing our attention to different areas. This all-on-a-computer idea has been done before (a few indies, some short films, and an episode of Modern Family), but never to such sustained and suspenseful effect. On a plot level, it’s a simple cyber-slasher, what Ebert would call a Dead Teenager Movie. But director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves turn conventional story elements unsettling through modern communications, digging into essential unease with their central gimmick.
We’re locked in on a static shot, with shaking found footage contained in steady windows, shifting frames within frames. The laptop belongs to Blaire (Shelley Henning), who was best friends with the dead girl. By placing the audience between this character and her screen, you have an uncomfortably close view of the action. It feels like an intrusion. We meet her chatting with her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) in a playful mood, planning prom night activities. Their friends (Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, and Courtney Halverson) join in, a standard white teen horror collection of pretty blondes, snarky hunks, and one sloppy dope. But then there’s that mysterious other, menacing messages and all. It’s threatening to reveal secrets, cause emotional and physical harm.
Exposition and dialogue extends to iMessages, Facebook, YouTube, and urban legend forums (Spotify provides the soundtrack) as the teens try to figure out the identity of their intruder and are forced to admit they’re not on the line with a prankster or hacker, but a ghost. This ghost isn’t playing around, either, quickly proving deadly intent by – what else? – flickering lights and knocking on doors. Then it leads them to their dooms in flashes of sudden violence. The film gets a constant unsettling mood and some good scares out of malfunctioning keystrokes, disappearing buttons, and recurring pinwheels. Creepiest are ethereal pixelations of video chatting, where sound slips out of sync and faces freeze, dissolve, or cut to black. The context makes these everyday frustrations suspenseful.
The group of thinly characterized teens is picked off one by one by a malevolent manifestation of adolescent fears and foibles. That’s hardly new genre ground to cover. But the technology enlivens it, making a slick and scary claustrophobic parable of modern day web life. In the news and on our social media feeds we hear about trolls, hackers, death threats, blackmail, bullying, and worse. By now we should be well aware of that which makes the web a vulnerable place. It is a space at once private and public, exciting and terrifying in the way those distinctions collapse.
Unfriended unsettles by showing us the laptop screen as an intimate space violated. In something as simple as bookmarks on a browser (like Jezebel and Forever 21) you can find character detail and a sense of invasion of privacy. The audience is as much a voyeur as the faceless spirit, watching these teens’ private place pulled into public consumption. It’s the lack of control technology allows. They haven’t a clue how this mystery being has access to data they thought was secret. How is that any different than the security concerns and surveillance worries we see reported every day? The row of chat windows on the screen is scary and full of dread because we can see it and because of what we see happen on it. The filmmakers manipulate visual space to recreate standard horror situations in smart new ways. One character hears a knocking outside and wants to go check. “Don’t go out there!” the others shout from their boxes, able only to watch with us as the horror reveals itself.