Overview: The Skype session of six high schoolers is interrupted by someone claiming to be a friend who died exactly one year earlier. Universal Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 82 Minutes.
Cybernatural: There’s a reason The Blair Witch Project hiked deep into the Maryland forest and legendary slasher and monster films have a tendency of following characters to places like middle-of-nowhere campgrounds. The frequency with which 2000s-produced horror finds its setting in former decades isn’t just a product of nostalgia. Traditionally, technological advancement is no friend of horror. In this, the contemporary age of information and constant monitoring, it feels as though everything is documented and recorded, yet there is still an absolute absence of definitive proof toward the existence of any paranormal entity. Disembodied voices no longer inspire fear of a spiritual presence, just the awareness of a functioning speakerphone system. Instantaneous video chats can place the appearance of our physical being in any space on the planet at any given time. We create the ghost of ourselves daily. And yet, the appeal of demonic forces, ghosts, and hauntings persists within all forms of our folklore and through all of our mediums of storytelling, even as the fear-inducing power of these superstitions is diluted by the upward trending development curve of our better sense and truer science. So when the new horror film Unfriended dives headfirst into a pool of modern technology, Director Levan Gabriadze’s and Writer Nelson Greaves aren’t just courageously accepting this ancient storytelling challenge, they’re modernizing the philosophical rules of the traditional ghost story.
Ghosts have always been thought to be semi-material manifestations of residual energy. Given that the average U.S. adult now spends 11 hours a day with digital media (Mashable), it only makes sense that the departed modern life, having invested most of its energy into a virtual plane, would be more likely to leave its energy to haunt the virtual plane. And that energy’s manifestation within and manipulation of electronic accounts collected in a landscape built from algorithms, databases, and data-mining should measure at least slightly more believable than misty apparitions and Ouija boards to the logical modern mind. And an ounce of believability can go a long way in a modern horror film.
Never Have I Ever Seen A Ghost Story Like This: There are times when the critical and movie-going communities confuse novelty concepts and gimmicks. Novelty often enhances more than it cheapens; gimmickry, more often than not, cheapens. Unfriended isn’t the first film to employ a busy computer screen as a setting, but Gabriadze and Editor Parker Laramie’s application of the structure creates both a comfortably familiar narrative space and new methods of utilizing the screen space for frightening storytelling. The Skype call at the center allows for multiple, shifting frames– as unsettling as any manipulative tactic since Paranormal Activity 3 put the camera on an oscillating fan. Textual asides layer the narrative, Wi-fi disrupted audio enhances sensory terror, and a Spotify sidebar allows for pretty crafty music cues. If Unfriended succeeds in the box office, it’ll likely inspire knockoffs and sequels, and I hope that we don’t allow that impending avalanche of emulation to bury our appreciation of the film’s inventiveness.
Offline: Thematically, Unfriended plays like an inverse of the recent horror hit It Follows. Where the latter film cherishes youth because it fears adulthood as being synonymous with death, Unfriended highlights the nightmare that is modern adolescence, with social media rendering the standard judgment and cruelty of teenage peers inescapable. The film’s handling of this thematic string isn’t always graceful. At times, the film moves like an intelligently embedded essay on the dangers of bullying, but other stretches move the film toward some crass and cliche statement about the internet turning everyone heartless and uncompassionate (the Chatroullete segment was an entirely unnecessary disruption). Even so, when Unfriended hits peak performance, the volatility of the inter-personal relationships of these teens makes for surprisingly frightening and tense moments. And if the punctuating straight horror pay-offs to these nerve-wracking sequences (as well as the obligatory final scare) feel a bit flat, how much can we fault a film for failing passively at tired, old trends while it simultaneously succeeds by exciting new terms?
Overall: Unfriended is a hell of a fun ride.