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Review: Unfriended (2015)

Unfriended (2015)

Directed by: Levan Gabriadze

Premise: A group of friends gather in a chatroom on the anniversary of their classmate’s suicide. An anonymous user haunts their computers during a late night chat session.

What Works: Unfriended is a movie that takes a familiar concept and successfully updates it for a contemporary audience. At bottom, Unfriended is a retelling of the urban legend of the “tragic prank” seen before in movies like The Burning and Terror Train, in which what was supposed to be a harmless joke has tragic consequences and a year later the victim returns to seek revenge. Updating the premise for today’s audience, a teenage girl who killed herself because of an embarrassing viral video returns as a digital ghost and wreaks havoc on her tormenters. The filmmakers have envisioned this in a very innovative way that plays on the found footage format. The entire film plays out in virtually real time as the teenage victims gather in a digital chat room and are visited by the departed in the guise of her social media profile. Unfriended consists of the uninterrupted screen activity of one of the participants as they communicate through Facebook posts, private messages, and video calls. The filmmakers smartly use the subtleties of social media to convey the subtext of the scene and the emotional state of the characters and the multiple platforms allow for the characters to communicate one thing privately while they say something else publicly. Above all, Unfriended has a lot of authenticity. The filmmakers are clearly hip to popular youth culture and the actors are all convincing in their parts. The backstory of Unfriended has a lot of contemporary currency that gives it some heft. This is a movie about cyberbullying and the filmmakers have adopted the horror film to act out the consequences of cyberbullying on teenage characters. The young people of Unfriended have to take responsibility for what they’ve done and that underlying subtext, as well as the complicated relationships between the teenage friends, makes Unfriended a lot more interesting than the average haunting or slasher movie.

What Doesn’t: The target audience of Unfriended is viewers in their late teens and early twenties. That viewership is likely to be hip to the realities of social media and specifically what this technology can and cannot do. The moviemakers effectively use the fragmented way in which people interact on social media but there are also a lot of logical and technical leaps that don’t make sense. Some of the incredulous moments are excusable because it is gradually implied that there is a supernatural force at work but other elements of Unfriended’s technical credibility aren’t convincing such as one of the teenagers attempting to purge the intruder by treating her as a virus. The movie also has the fundamental problem of a lot of haunted house pictures. In the same way that the residents of a haunted house should leave their home, these teens ought to just disconnect. Of course, if they did that the movie would be over and the film progresses quickly enough and is sufficiently engaging to keep this obvious solution at bay. As the teenagers are gradually knocked off, their deaths don’t quite fit with the rest of the film. The deaths aren’t as clever as the rest of the picture and the staging is sometimes silly. The only element where Unfriended is genuinely disappointing is in its ending. The filmmakers set up a climax that is satisfying and appropriate to the characters and themes of the story. But in the last seconds of Unfriended, the filmmakers insert a cliché final scare. The last twist cheapens the resolution. A quieter conclusion might not have been as spectacular but it would have been creepier and made a more lasting impression.

Bottom Line: Horror films have a way of capturing the anxieties of the culture, and especially youth culture, at a particular moment in time. In much the same way that Scream captured the essence of the 1990s and Hostel partially defined the 2000s, Unfriended is a movie of this moment. For that alone it is noteworthy but it is also a clever and well-made horror picture.

Episode: #539 (April 26, 2015)