After attractive pupil Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) gets drunk and passes out in an ungracious fashion, a video of her antics is posted online, triggering an online hate campaign that eventually ends in tragedy. Her school friends regularly meet in online chat room Skype, until a mystery caller enters their group chat one evening to haunt – and taunt – them through their dead friend’s account.
Unfriended plays to an online generation, many of who conduct their everyday lives through social media on a device screen – and it’s clever in this sense, placing a socially accepted existence in jeopardy using the horror genre. Another smart thing the film does is play out the dangers of putting everything online that may come back to haunt you. Whether this warning sticks with some after watching, long enough before that itch for some social media interaction is anyone’s guess, but there is a strong message of ‘be responsible’ for what you make public, without taking the moral high ground.
The film is like ‘The Digital Blair Witch Project’, using the standard distorted images of scared young faces, lit by torch light – or screen light here, and helpless screams of terror. What it also does to initially heighten tension is mix real-time pauses with frantic on-screen activity and mood music tracks to give a very genuine sense of the lead character’s emotional state at any one moment. Ironically, that lead is called ‘Blaire’ (commendably played by Shelley Hennig), perhaps in honour of the 1999 film, her fate predictably sealed last as we need her screen functioning for there to be a film.
Meanwhile, the course of Unfriended unfolds just like any other in the genre, with each caller picked off one by one. The only thrill is correct-guessing who’s next from each character’s fears, neurosises or unattractive traits. Indeed character richness is thin on the ground, and Unfriended fails prey to playing to type (the beauty, the jock and the nerd etc). However, the online activity is virtually non-stop and covers up this fact. There is also an engagement in watching exactly how to cope with each online threat that pops up – educational for those who aren’t social savvy.
Unfriended offers some half-decent scares inside a rather claustrophobic environment, with the usual sacrifice of attractive teens. Unsurprisingly, it’s not unique in that sense. What is noteworthy is taking the social media platforms’ functionality and accentuated sounds to trigger its suspense. In this respect, Unfriended grabs and retains our curiosity.