Review: ‘Unfriended’ (or Jump Scare: the Social Media Movie)

A real-time technological/paranormal twist on the found-footage concept.

On the anniversary of the suicide of her friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), high school senior Blaire (Shelley Hennig) recalls that fateful night by watching a video of the suicide that keeps reappearing online each time it’s taken down. Later when cybering with her boyfriend Mitch (Matthew Bohrer) over a video chat, three friends all join in the conference: Matt’s best friend Adam (Will Peltz), Blaire’s friend Jess (Renee Olstead), and their mandatory gamer/hacker/joker buddy Ken (Jacob Wysocki). Being a convenient evening when none of their parents are at any of their homes at that exact time, an univited blank image appears in the chat conference that won’t go away…just before a direct message appears on Blaire’s screen from someone claiming to be Laura herself, back from the dead.

This probably sounded like a cheap idea on paper – a budget horror film that is literally watching someone’s computer screen in real-time – but what’s impressive is just how effective it is. Insulated behind the relative safety of a digital screen and a web browser, little things begin to go wrong until that safety is turned into a trap when the usual escape of disconnecting is proven fatal. It’s a virtual And Then There Were None story (or Ten Little Indians) where secret relationships are revealed as the body count rises. Of course, if you don’t care what a bunch of snot-nosed whippersnappers are doing to one another over social media (and good riddance to them), you’re probably not going to care if a ghost in the machine is bumping them off. That said, if you let it under your skin and are familiar with the technology, it’s a twisted little tale with a clever in-concept payoff at the end.

It’s a horror film, folks. While it looks done on the cheap, it’s effective; who knew the classic “cabin in the woods” could be reworked as the chatroom online? There is also attention called to a specific subtext: even though we’re “all together” in cyberspace, we’re all still just as alone and vulnerable as ever…if not more so. When the boogeyman pops out of a closet or out from under a bed, all the firewalls in the world aren’t going to save you from a Cyber-Krueger. Also to the film’s credit is none of that Lawnmower Man, Matrix, or Hackers stuff where you see a visual representation of things unrealistically moving through the net or cyberspace or whatever; you see what Blaire sees as if you were the one behind the keyboard, zipping between windows, checking email, researching videos, and updating playlists. To kids today, most of this is second nature, a safe place where you’re always in control…unless you’re not.

The production is stuffed with product placement, from Microsoft Skype and Blaire’s Apple computer interface to You Tube and a suspicious-looking tab to MTV’s “Teen Wolf” show. The cast is adequate, the strongest being Shelley Hennig since she has to carry the entire production through her electronic POV. As a self-contained one-shot about having your sins and secrets uploaded into cyberspace, Unfriended turns out to be an effective horror film that finds plenty of ways to excel with the concept rather than be restricted by it; that said, it also suffers from that one-time cool-factor effect that re-watching ruins in that a Blair Witch Project way. If successful enough, it’s only a matter before the mandatory sequels ruin this idea trying to squeeze more money out of it, but it works well for a matinée or a late-night rental alone – just remember to air all your dirty laundry secrets on Facebook first because you never know who or WHAT hasn’t forgiven you yet.

(a two and a half recommendation out of four)

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