Typically, the ideal way to watch a movie is in an actual movie theatre on the biggest screen available. If you aren't able to do that, watching it at home on a high-quality HDTV screen is a decent substitute. In the case of the horror flick Unfriended, though, I think the best approach might be to watch it on your laptop. It's a “found footage” horror film with an even more limited (and more creative) scope than most; a movie that plays out entirely within the confines of a single computer screen. Sure, that screen offers all sorts of footage via YouTube, Facebook, Skype, etc., but all sorts of desktop background and browser clutter is omnipresent, reminding you of how little visual freedom you have.
The story begins with a simple Skype video chat between a pair of young lovers. Blaire (Shelley Henning, Ouija) and Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) indulge in a bit of flirtatious banter and make plans to go all the way after the upcoming prom. Just as their chat is getting steamy, they're joined by a trio of friends – Jess (Renee Olstead, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), Ken (Jacob Wysocki, Terri) and Adam (Will Peltz, Men, Women & Children). Midway through their chat, something strange starts happening: Blaire starts getting messages from the Facebook account of Laura Barnes, a fellow student who committed suicide a year earlier. Then, an unseen figure using Laura's Skype account joins their conversation.
Initially, the whole thing seems like an elaborate prank – maybe the work of their much-loathed “friend” Val (Courtney Halverson, Leprechaun's Revenge)? However, when Val joins the chat, she immediately becomes one of the mystery figure's targets. It seems that the ghost of Laura Barnes (or whoever this person is) thinks that all six of these teenagers played some role in her death, and is determined to exact violent revenge. But first, she's going to make them play a series of nasty games (including a particularly stress-inducing version of “Never Have I Ever”).
The Saw-style psychological torment the film employs (“Confess to doing something that will make everyone hate you or you die!”) is conventional, but the potentially gimmicky framework feels fresh. There are long, suspenseful sequences in which the only sounds we hear are fingers lightly tapping on a keyboard, and the only thing we see is a chat window containing messages being typed, edited, deleted, re-typed and sent. Blaire feels like the rare movie character who actually uses a computer in the way that real people do... that shouldn't feel surprising, but it does, and it helps the movie considerably. Also helpful: the fact that the film uses real websites and programs rather than employing look-alikes like “Friendspace” and “Skychat.”
Perhaps the most memorably unsettling thing about the film is the way it develops a Funny Games-esque sense of antagonism towards its audience. Eventually, it becomes clear that Unfriended is a movie about the way the internet places a barrier between people and their humanity, particularly when our presence is anonymous. It becomes such much easier for a person to say something like “kill yourself” or “you deserve to die” when they aren't forced to look at the human being on the receiving end of that hatred. The internet also makes it easier to turn the suffering of others into spectacle; a piece of clickbait begging for our upvotes, downvotes and self-righteous commentary. At a certain point, you realize that Unfriended is deliberately transforming itself into such a spectacle, offering one scene of sensationalistic suffering after another and waiting to see if we'll stop chuckling and close the browser. It's an effective provocation.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Year: 2015