Hot diggity, it’s a new low-budget Zeitgeist horror picture, a dandy one, cunningly tailored to the pleasure, pain, and subterranean dread of teens and young adults who spend their evenings keeping tabs on one another on Skype, Facebook, and other social media tools — with public shaming always just a mouse-click away. Unfriended kicks off with a YouTube video of onetime high-school queen bee Laura Barnes (played by an actress named Heather, which seems right) blowing her brains out for reasons we don’t know but feel pretty sure we’ll discover eventually. This is, in any case, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, and if horror films have taught us anything, it’s that vengeful ghosts pay super-close attention to the calendar.
Unfriended — originally titled Cybernatural (ugh) — consists of one long, beautifully faked shot of a girl’s computer screen. Within that screen, though, there are so very many screens. There are Skype boxes that show the face of the main character, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), and those of her five pals — her boyfriend, his best friend, a fat guy, a pouty blonde, and a sensitive redhead. There’s actual, verbal talk, a written chat, and instant boxes that pop up all over for private communications among these six friends — and one dead ex-friend. Yes, we know that ghosts can turn lights off and on and possess people. But it turns out they can text, too. (A nice touch on Blaire’s screen: open tabs for Free People and Forever 21. Girl has her priorities.)
There are no major plot turns in Unfriended that are not in the trailer, which gives a good sense of the teens’ mounting confusion over being hacked by someone or something with an eerily neutral avatar (blank head atop a sort of pillowy heart). What no trailer can capture is the repetition of the clicks. In one long bit, the only thing we see (and hear) is Blaire reading up on how to report abusive FB spam, Blaire trying to “unfriend” Laura Barnes, Blaire messaging her boyfriend, Blaire finding a website saying what to do when a poltergeist gets into your computer … There is no music (the only score consists of songs played by the characters themselves on their computers), so there’s a lot of quiet, a lot of typing, a lot of those clicks — which evoke (probably unintentionally) the weird clicking sounds coming out of vengeful Japanese/Korean wraiths in the Ring and Grudge movies. At times, the streaming lags and the images pixelate, the characters’ heads “ghosting.” It’s easy to think as you watch that social media connects us but also fragments us, and that the takeaway might well be fragmentation. Dismemberment, too.
It’s hard to imagine what audiences of 25 years ago would have made of a film with such a de-centered mise-en-scène (pardon my French). Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, among others, have induced jitters with the use of split screens, but I can’t remember ever trying to look so many places at once. These kids today, I’ll tell ya, can handle it better than I can, but I’d bet all of us came out feeling rattled by our eyes’ (and brains’) inability to rest for an hour and a half. The preview audience was unusually still, most of them having come from screens and doubtless heading back to them. (The idea of watching Unfriended on a laptop scares me. It’s too meta for comfort.) The point is that the audience knows this syntax inside out. Everyone will get the joke when what is often called “the spinning wheel of death” denotes … you know.
The cast is fine, and the Georgian-Russian director, Levan “Leo” Gabriadze, plays wittily with all the visual variables. But the actual plot is typical hack-’em-up nonsense, the only novelty is the sheer number of secrets and lies waiting to be exposed by a demon with apparent access to video of everything the characters have ever said and done. They’ve said and done plenty that their so-called friends shouldn’t hear about, which prompted me to ask my 17-year-old daughter (who demanded to come to the screening) if the deceptions seemed like those in the TV series Pretty Little Liars. She said, “Dad, if you compare this in your review to Pretty Little Liars, you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s nowhere near as depressing as this movie.” Unfriended really does use everything teens cherish about their technology lifestyle against them. It’s a mean, potent little movie.