I suppose I find the concept of “internet horror” or “cyber thrillers” more intriguing than a large number of my peers do. I say this because the latest entry in the genre, Unfriended, has been met with a great deal of scrutiny before its release like few horror films I can recall. Immediately after seeing the trailer, I was mesmerized by the shooting style, as I am with a great deal of these kind of internet-based horror films, like The Den and Untraceable. Unfriended is a stylish, taut thriller that uses incredible realism to create its online world, and predicates itself off of continuous mystery while simultaneously leaving you within arm’s reach of everything happening.
With this process, the audience becomes voyeurs into the lives of six souls, all of whom are active in a Skype videochat. We are focused on Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) laptop screen, who was a close friend of a girl named Laura Barns, who killed herself due to persistent harassment and cyberbullying she received from a video taken of her a year ago. While Blaire misses Laura, her other friends – her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), her girlfriends Jess and Val (Renee Olstead and Courtney Halverson), the smartass Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and equal smartass Adam (Will Peltz) – who are in the Skype chat with her do not recall her with such fondness.
The group notices an unknown person lurking in their chat – a user named “billie227,” whom they cannot hang up on in the chat nor get away from. The user, who turns out to be Laura Barn’s old Skype account, doesn’t have a microphone or a camera and communicates through text in the Skype chatroom, and begins to harass and threaten the group of friends. The user starts by posting incriminating videos and photos to the Facebook accounts of the friends before gradually turning more and more sinister over time, getting them to turn against their own peers with the secrets and provocative information it releases and taking a fatal twist.
Unfriended builds with a terrific sense of urgency, never allowing things to happen too quickly and allows the characters to pragmatically go about the situation by doing things like messaging others in secrecy, using other online links to try and discover what’s going on, and so forth. The realism in the characters’ behavior on the internet and the actual operation of the internet is some of the strongest I’ve seen in this genre. Director Levan Gabriadze nails the glitches, lags, and common social patterns of virtual communication here, right down to the way characters type out messages before erasing them in frustration.
Nuances lurk everywhere in Unfriended, be it in the aforementioned aesthetic sense or the personal sense (cast and crew can be seen as Facebook friends, Blaire’s computer always has a “Teen Wolf” tab open, as Hennig is in that particular program, etc), all of which effective in the way that they add to the realism of the picture. Even the actors, while playing contemptible people in general, get their character traits right and wind up being intensely watchable. Probably the most charming is Ken, played by Jacob Wysocki, who is finally playing a comedic character and clearly having fun with the persona. After starring in two films boasting a sulky, morose protagonist, one can only hope this propels him to even more great projects in his career.
Above all, Unfriended is frightening because with the internet brings limitless possibilities, especially in the way this particular films blends the online interaction element with the supernatural but not in the cliche-ridden, terribly predictable way we’ve seen it done before. Unfriended doesn’t pull punches, for it wants its suspense to build to something in the long run and jump scares aren’t the payoff it’s looking for. It’s too savvy for that, especially after conjuring up such perfect atmosphere. It was written, directed, and made by people who get the internet, understand the genre and the minefield of pitfalls they’re working on, and respect it and its audience enough to deliver old-fashioned scares in a relatively new manner.