The best horror hits you where you live. In 2007, shortly after the first Paranormal Activity had been released, I met up with a group of friends who’d just watched the movie on a pirated DVD. I don’t recall ever seeing a bunch of cocky teenagers so terrified by anything. Each entry into the series since then has become more belaboured and less frightening, but there was a moment when the idea felt like a revelation. The devil was, all of a sudden, in your living room. And the genius of it was that the sets, viewed within the fuzzy ambit of home-surveillance equipment, felt ordinary. Like my house. Like yours. Unfriended might be the most fiendishly clever found-footage movie since. It understands the difference between a monster under someone else’s bed and a monster under yours. It’s very much a horror movie of the moment, and it transfers the haunted house to a laptop because that’s where most of us live now.
The laptop in Unfriended belongs to Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a good-looking brunette with a nice-guy boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and a decent social circle. The production design limits itself to the frame lines of her MacBook screen, shrinking her friends’ portraits into Skype windows as she furiously toggles between applications – Spotify, iMessage, Safari. Hennig and the rest of the cast seem too old for these kinds of aimless group chats, yet they’re all there and convincingly irritating: blonde, vaguely-slutty Jess (Renee Olstead); handsome, douchey, athletic Adam (Will Peltz); fat, nerdy Ken (Jacob Wysocki); and, later, the quintessential queen-*****, Val (Courtney Halverson). These characters are all faintly unlikeable, and you have to imagine the movie understands this. To a twenty-something the idea of paying to see even 83 minutes of a teenager’s screen-share seems ridiculous. But the cast and the filmmakers are fully committed to this gimmick. They understand its limitations and how to leverage them for maximum effect. And eventually the movie starts feeding into prevalent ideas about how crazy and potentially harmful it is to live your life in this kind of always-online, social-media-driven world. It works because you can see a version of yourself in these chat windows, like Unfriended has hit the refresh button on your life. And it’s unsettling because so many of us still live in much the same way; connected, all the time. But who are we really connected to?
Blaire and her friends are tethered to the maybe-ghost of their dead classmate, Laura Barns, who committed suicide a year ago to the day after a humiliating drunken video went viral on YouTube. Someone (or something) is sending threatening messages from her Facebook account and lingering in the group’s Skype calls. The movie transpires in real time, so you get to see the demonic force ascend each rung of the cyber-terror ladder, starting with garden-variety trolling, then gradually advancing to exposing private images, publicly disseminating secrets and, eventually, possessing the teens long enough to make them stuff their hands into blenders and shoot themselves in the head. It’s silly, clearly, and the brief smatterings of B-movie gore are disguised behind the tell-tale unstable connection of a movie without much of a budget. But the fun in these sequences comes from how ably the traditional conventions of a paranormal thriller have been modernized: now, instead of a third-party expert, there’s a spooky message board; instead of a panicked call to emergency services, there’s a desperate dash through Chatroulette; exposition is doled out, shrewdly, through Blaire’s browsing habits, and characterisation in the way she stumbles over a sentence, typing, deleting and retyping. The movie’s success is largely predicated on an audience that understands how these apps work, but the fact that it has grossed many times more than it cost to make suggests that such an audience absolutely exists.
Most horror movies are fuelled by stupidity and utterly unlikeable characters, but most horror movies don’t tend to realize it. Unfriended does. That doesn’t mean it’s immune to these things – on the contrary, actually. Almost everything that happens is, in some way, pretty stupid, and there’s absolutely no one worth rooting for or empathizing with. The girl who offed herself, Laura, the ghost in the machine, is established pretty early on as being kind of a *****; in life, we’re told, and evidently also in death. But her meanness isn’t something the movie seems to frown on. She’s probably the closest thing to a heroine Unfriended has. Blaire and her assembled frenemies are all vacuous, mean-spirited and dishonest, to themselves and each other, which I think is the point. Laura has the right idea, and if the movie itself is actually rooting for anyone, all available evidence seems to suggest it’s her.
In practice, Unfriended isn’t scary. It relies too heavily on predictable jump scares and, honestly, how terrifying can Skype’s bosomy head-and-shoulders avatar really be? Theoretically, though, it’s terrifying. The technologically-literate understand the frustration of a spinning pinwheel, or the thud of a gloved hand on a dead link. How many of us have suffered the mundane frustration of being unable to empty our digital recycle bin due to an errant in-use file? Here, that file is, hilariously, a video of a Miley Cyrus performance. But the frustration is a matter of life and death. What a nightmare. How fraught with terror would we be if every inexplicable technical fault in our lives could kill us? Unfriended plugs itself into the part of us that has no idea how computers work, or why they so frequently decide not to. That’s where the horror is. People don’t kill people. No tech support does.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.