Published Apr 17, 2015Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended works well as the third part of an unintentional horror thematic trilogy released this spring, along with The Babadook and It Follows, a trio of films that skewer our complicity in sexist and slut-shaming culture. It's a topic well suited to horror, a genre that's always worked best when evoking modern-day anxieties. While Unfriended may use the topic of cyberbullying and anonymous harassing to create a ripped-from-the-headlines atmosphere, the film is more of an old-fashioned ghost story than its contemporary form would have you believe.
Told entirely online through Skype calls, Facebook messages and multiple tabs, Gabriadze basically turns the film into one long set piece (running a quick 82 minutes) that feels almost like a teen horror film by way of chamber melodrama (if not for the occasional jump scare). If the whole thing sounds silly, it is. But half the fun of Unfriended is watching all the moving pieces work in tandem with each other with Hitchcockian precision.
Unlike a lot of recent micro-budget "gimmick" horror films, the film displays a cheeky self-awareness of its own limitations. Rather than spend 20 minutes or so of non-action with thinly drawn characters (looking at you, February's The Lazarus Effect), Gabriadze keeps the dramatic momentum moving right out of the gate. Through the use of a six-way Skype call, the film pulls off a narrative juggling act in which each character's "window" has to be both a space of interaction with each other and a space of invasion for the very silly cyber-ghost stalking the leads.
Like Hitchcock's Rope, this one plays out in real time and covers the span of one long night when the ghost of a teenage girl comes back to haunt her friends who anonymously bullied her online. While a few films have attempted a similar online structure (last year's Open Windows comes to mind), Unfriended succeeds thanks to its roots in the classical horror genre and its Rube Goldbergian moving pieces that help punctuate the drama, all the while heightening the sense of playfulness Gabriadze aims for.
While The Babadook and It Follows were grounded in a certain kind of thematic and emotional realism, Unfriended takes similar topics over more irreverent, fractured landscapes, a teen movie that has more in common with I Know What You Did Last Summer than The Exorcist. While playing loose with touchy modern topics, the film still works as a scathing critique of online harassment and the ways social media has radically transformed the ways we reveal information.
The film takes too broad an approach with these ideas to come up with any sort of nuanced argument, but it's still cheekier and smarter than its vapid landscape of surfaces lets on. At many points in Unfriended, Gabriadze suggests the "monstrosity" of anonymous teenage cyberbullying (especially the online comments that drove a teenage girl to suicide) aren't quite as different as today's well-meaning but harmful outrage machine as we'd like to admit. The cyberbullies and the well meaning outraged both end up posting similar comments in overwhelming quantities, something Gabriadze makes sure we notice.
Horror has always been about the invasions of private and public lives, and Unfriended takes this approach literally, with a heavy amount of tongue-in-cheek awareness of this construct. Differentiating perceived "non-spaces" of message boards and comment threads (with ChatRoulette getting a hilarious takedown), where safety and the ability to live without constraint can be found in anonymity, and "spaces" of personal interaction (private messages, Skype, Facebook chat) where the invasion of these spaces works as a source of horror, the film gets a solid pass on its inventive use of horror tropes.
You've seen it all before, but Unfriended is genre done right. Even though its design is ultra-new, it's the best old-school horror film since The Conjuring.