The found footage sub-genre of horror is a very dry well. Despite two resurgences, marked by The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, it has come to a point where the sub-genre is lacking in invention, with only entries outside of horror truly proving all that memorable (Chronicle). This time, however, it’s a little different. Technically, the scenario here isn’t even found footage, but is perhaps the inevitable evolution for found footage, as we witness the horror taking place on a laptop screen. While certainly a big push in terms of gimmickry, this action allows Unfriended to tap in to modern sensibilities in an unnerving and competent manner.
Taking place in Fresno, California, we witness the events over the laptop screen of teenager Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) as she engages in a wide Skype conversation with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and their friends, Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead) and Val (Courtney Halverson). This particular night marks the first anniversary of the death of their classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after being the focus of aggressive cyber-bullying. Strange things start to occur during their video conversation, with the teens soon coming to realise that they are being haunted by the vengeful spirit of Laura, and she is none too merciful.
Found footage is a sub-genre that I often try to keep up with, which is very hard because a lot of them truly do suck. It is not exactly a rewarding genre. But every now and again, one comes along which re-installs a little faith, and Unfriended marks one of the more successful and memorable examples of the style in quite some time.
Focusing entirely on the computer screen does limit its potential, but director Levan Gabriadze manages to craft a great deal of tension through pop ups and message alerts. What is the most successful element is the presentation of the Skype experience and the web surfing that occurs at the same time. Every detail is very convincing, as we get a very realistic portrayal of how young people occupy themselves on their laptops, with or without a supernatural stalker. It all adds up to ensure that the experience is as unsettling as possible.
The film also generates an unsettling tone through its exploration of the consequences of cyber-bullying, colouring the film as one which has something quite relevant to say about the youth of today, cyber communities and the type of people we wish ourselves, or allow ourselves to be, on-line. The on-line environment here aims to demonstrate how even close friends can know very little about each other, as well as highlighting the risks of posting certain things or uploading certain documents on to the web. Once something is out there, it has the potential to come back, in destructive fashion. It just so happens that amongst these friends, the secrets are revealed by a wronged and vengeful ghost of a suicidal teen.
The cast of largely unknowns establish enough of a dynamic to convince, but most of the characters are fodder or designed to be unlike-able, so its hard to become that invested in any of them. In fact, you may find yourself rooting for the spirit of Laura Barns from time to time, considering she’s the one with the righteous cause and also seemingly quite a maliciously witty individual, if her foreboding messages to Blaire and her friends are anything to go by.
The scares and thrills themselves range from the unnerving to the clichéd, with the sound design going heavy on the bass when something bad is about to happen, a technique which was boring even by the time Paranormal Activity came around. The ending itself in particular demonstrates this rather uninspired approach to staging frights. Yet, it is the mystery surrounding the supposed sins of these young people that keeps you engaged, as friendships unravel and certain people get their comeuppance when they refuse to play Laura’s game.
Unfriended deserves the benefit of the doubt, as it capable of being surprising while being a part of a sub-genre that has become a cliché in and of itself. Sure, this still indulges in a fair few clichés itself, but its attention to detail and its unnerving atmosphere allow for Unfriended to be a tense cinematic experience that is both a fun horror flick and an interesting look at the destructive potential of cyber-bullying. So, kids, play nice. You never know who’s on-line.