The recent advancements in technology over the past few years have allowed us to further connect with people in ways we never could before, especially with the creation of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. However, this isn’t always a good thing. If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now; sometimes the internet can tend to be really negative. I’ve seen that plenty of times when it comes to film discussions but then you also have something much, much worse like cyber-bullying. As if bullying wasn’t bad enough, now bullies are able to torment their victims online, in many cases anonymously meaning that the bullying victim could potentially have no way of finding who’s doing it to them. This whole practice sets up the plot of Blumhouse Productions’ newest film, ‘Unfriended’, in which an extreme act of cyber-bullying comes back to haunt a bunch of teenagers who were at the forefront of it all. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m really not the biggest fan of horror films. I don’t really go see horror films in the theater unless the premise intrigues me. Hence why last year, around this exact time in fact, I went to go see the film ‘Oculus’ which, if you recall, I wasn’t the biggest fan of (though I do promise that I’ll give that film a second chance in the future). So ‘Unfriended’ was another case of a horror film that actually did interest me based on its premise; either that or I’ve been inundated with its ads online for the past month, which sort of made me obligated to check it out.
It is established that, a year before the events of the film, a high-school student named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), committed suicide after being mercilessly tormented by her peers after an embarrassing video of her passed out drunk at a party was posted online. Exactly one year after this, a bunch of her former classmates; Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Adam (Will Peltz), have a group chat on Skype. Everything seems to be going well until they realize that there’s another person in the chat with them; ‘billie227’. They soon realize that this anonymous account belonged to Laura and despite all of their efforts, they have no way of getting rid of this mystery caller. Soon enough, the caller starts to become much more threatening towards them, demanding them to tell it who was responsible for posting the video of Laura and threatening to kill them if they sign out of Skype. As time goes on, and the mysterious force begins to take them out one by one, the friends’ dark secrets begin to be uncovered. Not only do these reveals test their friendship, but it’s shown that they actually played a major part in Laura’s harassment, including the fact that one of them was the one responsible for posting the embarrassing video of her in the first place.
So the idea behind this movie is that it all takes place on Blaire’s computer screen as the main characters are chatting on Skype. As gimmicky as that sounds, and let’s be honest it sort of does, it is actually done to pretty great effect here. It’s not like it all takes place on Skype, which definitely could’ve become really boring after a while. Throughout the film, we see Blaire do other things on her computer, like watch videos online, send messages to her boyfriend Mitch and later ‘Laura’, and so on. And because it centers on Blaire more than the other main characters, we do definitely see the whole situation from her point of view, like how sometimes she re-types some of her responses to people online. The film also does a good job establishing a sense of ‘realism’ (you know, as ‘realistic’ as a horror film can get) through the way the Skype conversation is presented. Having used Skype many times before to record podcasts with my group ‘The Feature Presentation’, we have experienced problems such as lag and audio/video cut-offs. In any other movie, the ‘call’ that the characters are in probably would’ve looked ‘perfect’ without any issues arising with the technology. But that’s not the case here, as we do frequently see the video lag and cut off video and audio at times. Technically speaking, this is sort of along the lines of being a ‘found-footage’ film. As such, it actually does do something new with the genre, which I think we can all agree has been generally overdone in the past few years.
I loved the ways that ‘Laura’ messed with her victims, like in one scene she has them play the game ‘Never Have I Ever’ and as the game goes on, some of their dirty secrets are brought up, from rumors that they’ve spread about each other to affairs that they’ve had behind their friends’ backs. Heck, at one point, as they start to argue, ‘Laura’ starts playing a song about liars that can’t be turned off, which I thought was pretty funny. The film does highlight why cyber-bullying is a bad thing, but that also results in some of the film’s shortcomings. Because the thing is, being that this film is about a bunch of teens who are being targeted by a supernatural force because of their participation in the bullying that one girl had to deal with, the main characters aren’t exactly likable. But then again, they’re basically just your standard horror film character stereotypes so we don’t really care about them anyway. This is one case where you do actually find yourself rooting for the killer. But ultimately, we don’t ever really learn anything about this ‘killer’ either. I mean I know the film is implying that it’s Laura but at no point do we ever get an official answer on that or how this is all being done. Heck, at one point, I thought it was going to be that the killer was revealed to be Laura’s uncle, who’s mentioned at one point in the film during a conversation between Blaire and Mitch. I’m not spoiling anything when I say that it isn’t.
In the end, I guess you can say that I admire this movie more for its execution than I do in regards to the writing. Because while this film does show why cyber-bullying is just bad on all accounts, this also means that the main characters, who are all horror stereotypes, are unlikable because they played a part in the cyber-bullying of their classmate Laura, who ended up killing herself because of it. And as much as this is a case where, given the situation, you’re actually rooting for the killer due to what happened to her, we never get a clear idea of who this killer is supposed to be or how this is even happening in the first place. Without the whole ‘online/Skype’ angle, this would’ve just been your run-of-the-mill clichéd teen horror flick. It still is, but because of the inventive direction they took with telling the story, as well as its solid establishment of realism primarily though portraying the typical Skype conversation, it’s not as big of an issue here compared to a film like ‘Annabelle’ or ‘Ouija’. Of course keep in mind I’m not a fan of horror films so these aren’t the kind of movies I usually see. But even with that said, I did like ‘Unfriended’. I may not have been ‘scared’ by it, per se, but I will give it credit for actually doing a really good job in terms of suspense and paranoia through its solid execution of its online-themed set-up. As far as horror films go, I can’t say that this is an absolute ‘must-see’ but given some of the other horror films that have come out over the past few years, this one does have more to offer.