When her cyber-bullying crosses over into the real world, teenager Laura Barns kills herself publicly. Unfriended takes place on the one year anniversary of her death. Five teenagers (or archetypes) – Blaire (the protagonist) (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (the protagonist’s boyfriend) (Moses Jacob Storm), Jess (the protagonist’s best friend) (Renee Olstead), Adam (a boring guy) (Will Peltz), and Ken (the fat one/the geeky one) (Jacob Wysocki) – meet up for a Skype call to do teenager things, but then events take a turn for the weird when an anonymous Skype caller logs on to their call and cannot be kicked out. This turns out to be the ghost of Laura Barns, and she’s not happy.
Originally released on the festival circuit under the title Cybernatural and not making much of a splash, Unfriended caused quite a stir online with its central gimmick “ the entire film takes place on the main character’s laptop screen, like a screencast. Depending on who you asked, this was either an original and subversive spin on the found footage format or the stupidest thing ever. Incredibly, it actually turns out to be the former.
Yes, the famous gimmick which caused so many raised eyebrows is actually very well executed. Blaire’s computer screen gives us a surprisingly intimate character portrait of a teenage girl. Everything from her Chrome tabs, to her Spotify playlists, to the way she types, to the way she nervously moves the cursor around the screen. Showing us a teenager through the device on which their entire life is stored gives us a fascinating window into their psyche. What a shame, then, that the writing couldn’t be better.
Despite how well characterised the protagonist is, her friends are the blandest characters they could muster up, and considering this is a teen horror film that’s quite an achievement. The archetypes I listed earlier are literally the extent of the characters. No more. This isn’t the fault of the actors, mind. In fact, as teen horror films go the acting is actually pretty good, but the writer has clearly just slapped together some cardboard cutouts to get picked off.
And of course, since this is a teen horror film, people have to die. I will give credit where credit is due, Unfriended is astonishingly methodical with its pacing. No one dies until about 45 minutes in to this 83 minute film, and the tension is quite well done. It’s around this time, however, that all goodwill the film had falls entirely apart. The direction of the film, despite how well the gimmick is used, is amateurish. Apparently the best way to be scary is the turn the sound design up to full and then throw jump scares at us after long periods of silence. Congratulations, yeah, I was pretty startled when sudden graphic gore came out of nowhere with very loud sound. But that’s all it does, it doesn’t scare, it simply startles. And for a horror film, being scary is quite important, like a comedy film being funny.
Speaking of the gore, it’s ridiculous. It’s pretty sickening when it comes up in all its jump scare glory, but looking back on it, it’s totally over the top. And for a film that has a fairly moderate pace it’s jarring to say the least. There’s no build up to the deaths, they just do the long silence thing that isn’t actually terror-inducing, simply making you anxious, which isn’t the same thing. A good horror film is supposed to make the viewer question themselves, even if that question is just, how would I react in that situation. But the viewer can’t really relate to a situation of (SPOILER ALERT) having hot hair curlers shoved down your throat or being mutilated by a blender because they’re aren’t real enough scenarios to provoke that kind of reaction.
This isn’t for lack of trying, although the film’s biggest failing is its attempt to make the viewer question themselves. Take The Babadook as an example, one of the best horror films in recent years. When the protagonist acts violent towards her child, we see the build-up, we see the catalyst, and we see the outcome. It gives us the information needed to question how we would react in that scenario because we’ve seen everything. Unfriended tries to give the audience something to think about, but it’s possibly the most bone-headed examination of the effects of cyberbullying since that terrible 2011 Lifetime TV movie.
Here we’re going to get into some minor spoilers, so skip to the end if you care.
In the end, all of the characters are revealed to have been involved with the death of Laura Barns in some way. Since they’re the people she chose to haunt, that’s not exactly a twist, but the main issue is the continuing revelation about how all except maybe one of the cast is a horrible, amoral, disgusting human being. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, bad people often make the most interesting characters, but here is where all the poor characterisation starts to feel like it’s intentional.
You see, all of these archetypes are meant to represent the ˜average’ teenager. The hot one, the jock one, the geek one, the bitchy one. They’re all the stereotypical teenage cutouts that are normally used so the viewers that the writers assume are morons can relate to the characters. Here, though, they’re used more maliciously. Every teenaged stereotype is revealed to be a really bad person, but this isn’t treated like an abnormality, but is framed like a normal teenager. It starts to seem like the writer had less of an intent to hold a mirror up to the audience, and more wanted to point a finger at them and moan about millennials and how selfish and mean and awful they are. This isn’t an examination of modern youths, this is an outright condemnation of them as a group. Even Laura Barns, the girl who was bullied to the point of suicide, is shown as having been bullied because a video came out of her taking drugs, drinking heavily, and having casual sex at a party. It’s like ˜grumpy old man complaining about the youths of today: the movie’, and it gets very annoying very fast with how two-dimensional it is.
(Okay real full on ending spoilers now)
Especially when the film ends on a note that destroys any shred of intelligent debate or commentary it might have to offer with a terrible, clichÃ©d, out of nowhere horror movie ending that not only kills the gimmick stone-dead, but leaves you wondering what the hell they were thinking when they decided the placeholder ending from the first draft in which the main character closes her laptop and then gets presumably killed by the real life, physical ghost of Laura Barns after all her friends are dead was in any way okay. If you really wanted to make the main character (who I will remind you is a total scumbag) suffer, why didn’t the ghost kill her friends, then leave her alone, leaving her to stew in the trauma that she has experienced, making her feel the same way Laura did in the time leading up to her taking her own life? That’s a big deal, and if she really wanted revenge she would have been smarter about it, not just killing all her friends and then just quickly finishing her off.