Unfriended has taken everything I fear most—teenagers, the internet, and white people—and turned it into a horror film that, for the most part, is fun, smart, and almost as terrifying as the real world.
This online horror focuses on a group of teenage friends who are hanging out on Skype one year after the suicide of their friend Laura Barnes. Laura killed herself after a humiliating video of her at a party circulated online. In the midst of being typical, vile teenagers, the friends find themselves terrorized by the apparent online spirit of Laura Barnes, who clearly blames them for pushing her to suicide.
In a modern twist, the entirety of the film is shown through the group’s online video chat. Through a computer screen, we see the terror of each teenager as a vengeful online spirit reveals their darkest secrets through Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, and Skype. One by one, we see these teenagers meet horrible fates in an online chat that they cannot sign out of.
The premise of this movie works very well for a three reasons.
One: The internet is a horrible place and we all know it. Every day we see how easily someone’s entire life can be ruined in cyberspace.
Two: Teenagers are monsters. Never are human beings more cruel, narcissistic, and reactionary than between the ages of 14 and 20—especially bored, middle-class teenagers. When I walk down the streets at night, I’m not keeping an eye out for muggers or vagrants, I’m keeping watch for 19-year-old white boys. Have we figured out a way to weaponize drunk frat kids? Some evil genius may want to consider it.
Three: Because the viewpoint of the film is you watching the conversations via a computer screen, you really feel like you are in the movie. Unfriended has a modern-day Carrie/Blair Witch feel and successfully keeps you on the edge of your seat without being overly gimmicky.
With such a promising setup—horrible teenagers, anonymous internet trolls, viral videos—I honestly feel like this movie could have been a lot more horrifying than it actually is. The online secrets that drive the kids in the film to their deaths (who slept with who and so on) are not nearly as terrifying as some of the real-life violations committed online every day. One night of internet exposure feels a bit like a cop-out. Real internet terrorists don’t just post pictures of you cheating on your boyfriend, they find your deepest fears and greatest shames and use them against you. They make you relive your own personal trauma (like, say, creating a Twitter account impersonating your dead dad). Real internet demons don’t just show up one night and force you to kill yourself, they slowly chip away at your being, day by day, until there is no you left.
Instead, Unfriended uses a modern setting for a classic villain: the vengeful spirit who appears on the anniversary of a great wrongdoing to exact a night of gruesome justice. This is the same villain in Scream or Carrie or Prom Night, sending terror through instant message instead of telekinesis. It is quick, bloody, and ultimately much more shallow than true internet terror can really be.
As general jump-in-your-seat horror, Unfriended works pretty well. But if you really want some sleepless nights, just log on to Twitter.