You can tell that the horror genre’s idea pool is running pretty dry when, instead of just remaking Friday the 13th, Halloween and Evil Dead again, horror filmmakers resort to using Skype for their thrills and scares; something that’s perchance acceptable for a third-rate Creepypasta written by some teenaged Nintendo fanboy somewhere, but not really for a motion picture by what I’d presume is professionals.
Even if the concept of a “haunted” Skype chat is, by itself, not scary enough a concept to warrant its own feature film, Unfriended also fails to be a clever technological spin on the found-footage genre, seeing as Paranormal Activity 4 already used webcams and video chats for some of its scares back in 2012. And as for already existing “haunted chatroom” movies like Smiley – no comment. Is Unfriended still an improvement, though? Well, yes and no and maybe.
To begin with, let us examine the story. Or rather, the screencast. High school student Blaire Lilly (Shelley Henning) is still mourning the death of her childhood friend Laura, who took her own life after being subject to extreme cyberbullying. I’m not gonna comment too much on that particular “moral of the story” as I’ve already done a review of Cyberbu//y. Nevertheless, Blaire starts a group chat on Skype with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and their close pals Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Adam (Will Peltz), plus an unknown user called billie227. Nobody knows who it is and any attempt to remove the user from the group chat is unsuccessful. At the same time, the friends start receiving cryptic messages from Laura’s old Facebook account.
When someone or something also starts altering their Facebook accounts and they can’t pin any of what’s happening on each other or any mutual friends, the gang begins to realize that something is very wrong. Predictably, these strange happenings soon turn far more sinister and our teen heroes get increasingly scared and upset. For all the originality this film tries to have, it couldn’t spare us the experience of another horror flick where the stars are sobbing teenagers whom we all know are gonna die in some random order later. At least they’re mildly cute, I guess.
It’s somewhat funny how I compared this film to Smiley, given that YouTuber Shane Dawson, one of the main stars of Smiley, has apparently made his own parody trailer of Unfriended (implying Smiley puts him in a sufficient position to make such a parody). I haven’t watched it, of course. I haven’t watched anything by Shane Dawson. I’m not going to watch anything by Shane Dawson.
Unfriended is, for what it’s worth, not as bad as Smiley. Also, given that the whole film is done in real-time (except whenever it jump-cuts and very clearly isn’t) and entirely via webcam as opposed to only occasionally, it is admittedly a bit more fascinating to watch than the aforementioned Paranormal Activity sequel too, but the appeal is short-lived. Once again, the idea of a dead friend mysteriously reappearing on social networks might work as a Creepypasta that you read before bed for a couple of minutes or perhaps even a YouTube video, but to stretch such a concept out to 83 minutes of film makes the story grow thin and often uneventful. I was more spooked by reading the Wikipedia synopsis than I was watching the actual movie. Or reading that title. Although I guess it’s a better option than the original Cybernatural title.
Ignoring the gimmick around which the film is constructed, I must still avouch that it isn’t very good. The acting isn’t high-caliber, the plot’s not especially realistic, there is no shred of subtle foreshadowing, there are computing goofs a ton, and certain obnoxious horror clichés such as jumpscares have alas survived the film’s attempts to be clever and original. Also, there might be some product placement for some computer program in there somewhere but, darndest thing, I just can’t put my finger on what it could be.
Though not as horrible as certain other films I’ve seen this year (looking straight at you, Fifty Shades), I won’t recommend Unfriended as anything more than an optional rental for one of those horror movie nights where you have inexplicably made the conscious decision of having your most squeamish friends over so that they can hog all the candy and make split-second loud noises in unison with the film’s jump scares. Don’t forget to marathon Paranormal Activity directly afterwards.
I was going to end this review on a joke about how there should be a Twitter-related sequel called Unfollowed right before the YouTube spin-off Unsubscribed appears, but then I realized that making those jokes in a review that berates unoriginality wouldn’t make me appear very consistent.