Back in 1996, there was an FMV PC video game called “Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of the Flesh”. It was a sequel to the popular horror game “Phantasmagoria” obviously, but it had an element that I hadn’t really seen in a video game before: ghosts invading your computer. The main character, Curtis, is an office jockey who starts losing his mind. He starts seeing strange emails dropping in, eerily warning him or mocking him. It was very creepy, and effective. As mundane as it was to watch people at work, you never knew what was around the corner.
The 2015 horror film “Unfriended”, directed by Leo Gabraidze and written by Nelson Greaves, is presented completely through this kind of medium: meaning, it’s all on a computer screen. The main character, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), is involved with a group Skype chat, and that’s the only POV we get throughout nearly the entire film.
It sounds like it would be hard to watch for an entire feature length film; but for all of its 81 minute running time, it held my attention fully.
The plot is fairly simple, and timely: a teenage girl, Laura Barns, was filmed while drunk at a party, and passes out in her own filth. The video is uploaded to Youtube and goes viral, causing her to be so embarrassed that she commits suicide (also committed to film). On the anniversary of her death, Blaire is chatting with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm). Just as they’re getting a little intimate, they’re joined by a group of friends: Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki). The group jokes around with each other, while Blaire notices there’s a stranger in the room simply known as “billie227”. The stranger just hangs around, not doing anything, while the other kids are aloof.
But Blaire has a few other screens going as well: she has her Pandora, a text chat ongoing with Mitch, and Facebook. She starts receiving strange messages from Laura’s account. Thinking that she’s being pranked by Mitch, she chides him to stop. He tells her it’s not him, and convinces her to remove her as a friend on Facebook. But she finds that she can’t. It’s not possible. These perceived glitches continue until she finally removes her. Laura responds: “You shouldn’t have done that, Blaire.”
From here, “billie227” starts making their presence known in the chat. It begins with simple trolling, which Ken correctly suspects. They think it’s another one of their friends, Val (Courtney Halverson), and involve her in the chat.
“billie227” then starts taking over, and soon turns the kids on each other, playing with them and exposing some of their darkest secrets, culminating in some grizzly deaths and familiar slasher film tropes.
That’s really what this movie is: a ghost slasher flick. Each character possesses the same characteristics as the campers in “Friday the 13th” or the high schoolers in “Nightmare on Elm Street”. The innovation here is that Laura only exists through their computer. But she certainly holds a lot of power.
The video chat cuts in and out, it’s fuzzy sometimes, and freezes–if you were on the internet, you’d be frustrated. Here, it’s used as a technique to create tension, and I think it works pretty well. The way we see the grainy video from the chat has echoes of “found footage” films. The nice thing is that the actors here are very natural, and don’t seem like “actors” playing characters. It literally looks like you’re watching a bunch of teenagers in an on-line chat. I credit the screenwriter Nelson Greaves for creating this collective of believable teens–while some dialog was probably ad-libbed, you can tell he moves the story along keenly.
The film is not without its cliches, however; it turns out there’s something between Blaire and another friend that creates a silly love triangle. Plus, we have another kid who did some embarrassing partying of her own that Laura tries to use against her. It becomes a little predictable, and it’s frustrating because at that point we know exactly where this story will ultimately end up. It would’ve been nice to have a few surprises, but I think for what it was, it certainly does its job better than a lot of big budget slasher films have.
The themes of millennial teen detachment are certainly present here. That’s what’s so effective about the film’s approach–you get the feeling this is how kids go through life, although most probably use their phones more than their laptops. But for multitasking, Blaire’s Macbook certainly gets a workout. It perfectly presents an idea of why cyberbullying is such a problem: because you bring the bullying home. It’s bad enough getting it from 7a-3p at school. But when you’re trying to surf the web, wind down at home, and you come across a video of yourself, and everyone can see it–it’s the ultimate embarrassment. Maybe a delicate plot device such as teenage suicide is a little inappropriate for a teen slasher horror flick–yet maybe it’s just how kids need to experience it. After all, these kids don’t take their plight very seriously until it’s too late. Laura has her cyberprints all over them before they have a chance to do anything about it. And by then, it’s too late.
There’s a great moment where Blaire is trying to get help–using Chat Roulette. I wonder if the filmmakers were smirking while putting this sequence together. We all know by now what Chat Roulette is used for. It’s certainly no substitute for calling 9-1-1. But Blaire cycles through all kinds of disinterested, strange, and weird people–including one person who is only revealing a very private appendage. She does eventually find help, but it’s the sifting through all the crazy internet people that illustrates what the internet seems to be used for these days: screwing around.
“Unfriended” is certainly no masterpiece, and the climax probably could’ve had a little more punch to it; also, some of the deaths are very gory and I think subtlety would have served it better. The way Laura Barns is speaking to them is very unsettling; for the character to die in some obnoxious, loud and bloody way just seems forced. It’s obvious a ghost is tormenting them–let the ghost take its time. It would certainly lend more to the brooding atmosphere of the cyberstalking, rather than the jarring effect of cutting to a screaming teenager.
Overall, it’s certainly intriguing throughout, and satisfying as an indie horror flick. It capitalizes on what it sets out to do, which is to teach a valuable lesson: sometimes, it’s better to be offline (which was the original title of the film).