This week on the blog I will be taking a look at technology as a source of horror in the genre. Hopefully, I’ll be posting a larger thematic piece in The Laboratory and, maybe, I’ll have a podcast uploaded soon. In the meantime, over the next few days, I’ll be reviewing a few more noteworthy horror films that revolve around technology.
Today, the first film I’ll be reviewing is Unfriended, which hit theaters back in 2014. A minor box office hit, Unfriended divided critics and fans with its story unfolding almost entirely on screencasted computer screens. Unfriended may have divided audiences, but its film format offered an interesting look into cyberbullying and teen social media use, making it worth a second glance.
One year earlier, high school student Laura Barns committed suicide after she was the victim of a viral video and relentless cyberbullying. The video, uploaded by an anonymous user, showed Barns drunk, unconscious, and defecating herself.
On the anniversary of her death, Blaire Lily and her boyfriend, Mitch, are chatting online with four friends when they begin receiving messages from an anonymous account. Unable to block the unknown user, “billie227”, the friends are soon forced to play an online game that threatens to reveal their darkest secrets. Blaire also begins receiving messages from Laura’s old Facebook account. Soon the friends are confronted with the possibility that “billie227” is the spirit of a vengeful Laura Barns.
Clever Twist on the Found Footage Format
At the time Unfriended was released, the found footage horror (FFH) format felt very much overused and worn. However, with digital technology advancing at unprecedented rates, filmmakers have continued to find innovative ways to use new formats to capture their stories. Earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh released his most recent directorial effort, Unsane, which was filmed entirely on iPhones. Several films, including Hardcore Henry and #FromJennifer, have been made using only GoPro cameras.
It’s a story told using Skype chat cameras, Facebook and YouTube accounts, iMessage, and desktop apps.
Unfriended similarly uses technology to put somewhat of a new spin on slasher and haunted house film subgenres, as well as the FFH format. Directed by Leo Gabriadze, Unfriended is filmed almost entirely using screencasts of computers screens. It’s a story told using Skype chat cameras, Facebook and YouTube accounts, iMessage, and desktop apps. Even the occasional use of background music is taken from a desktop iTunes library. I say ‘somewhat new’ because the approach has been used previously on at least one smaller film, The Den.
Unfriended Mostly Nails Its Scares
While some viewers took issue with the format, Unfriended and its novel take on found footage works surprisingly well. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the format and the narrative unfolds methodically, but Gabriadze capably inserts key narrative hints and developments in the film’s early going. As the supernatural elements emerge, Unfriended achieves and maintains a surprising level of tension. Additionally, the layered screens with the various social media platforms are used to great effect as a tool for revealing the film’s twists and shocks. It’s impressive how much suspense Unfriended can build with a “billie227 is typing” notification.
Like most FFH films, Unfriended does run into problems with some contrived story elements. FFH films, for instance, are often undermined by the need to come up with increasingly implausible reasons for why someone would continue filming unfolding horrors. Unfriended doesn’t run into this specific problem. However, tith the narrative confined to computer screens, there are inevitably some moments that feel forced to fit the film format rather than reflecting organic character choices. Unfriended is tense and suspenseful, but the scares are also limited by the film format.
Like most FFH films, Unfriended does run into problems with some contrived story elements.
The Horrors of Cyberbullying
Unfriended works as well as it does in part due to the good fit between the film’s format and its subject matter. That is, the format doesn’t come across as gimmicky or shoehorned into the film to drag overused supernatural themes into multiplexes. Instead Unfriended feels like a film that very purposely uses its particular format to give viewers a window into teen social media use and cyberbullying. Of course, Unfriended exploits the subject matter to some extent, mirroring real-world tragedies to fuel its scares.
The idea of the supernatural intersecting with our online lives also resonates. For the film’s likely target audience, the Internet has always existed and social media has probably overlapped with their adolescent and young adult years. More and more frequently, we are living online and our online lives have consequences in the real world. Over the last several years, we have witnessed numerous instances of social media interactions having disastrous effects on careers and lives. Unfriended uses its format and supernatural theme to mine the fears we have with our emerging cyber-worlds.
Unfriended Delivers on its Promised Scares
To date, I’ve watched Unfriended a few times and it’s a film that not only holds up to repeated viewings, it actually improves with subsequent viewings. On a superficial level, Unfriended is suspenseful and tense, with its final reveals proving to be heartbreaking. All of the performances feel natural, which bolsters the impact of Unfriended’s closing moments. Not everything in Unfriended works but it does enough right to deliver on its promised scares. Additionally, Unfriended offers some interesting subtextual commentary on social media and the more toxic viral aspects on our cyber-worlds. It’s certainly head and shoulders above the dreadful, Friend Request.