Unfriended is clever, energetic and original — and dull, flat and derivative.
Presented entirely as the display of the protagonist’s laptop screen, the teen-targeting horror movie depicts — largely through group video chat — high-school friends tormented by a mysterious interloper a year after the suicide of a female classmate. The mysterious online presence that seems to know everything about them claims they were each somehow involved in the bullying that led the girl to kill herself … is this her ghostly revenge?
Unfriended has a lot going for it, principally the intellectual energy in the all-on-the-computer-screen conceit and unusually good acting for the genre. There are some nice creepy touches, such as messages popping up too quickly to be typed or responses to texts that haven’t yet been sent. The filmmakers also figured out that unsent messages could function as subtext, so kudos for that bit of cleverness.
It’s a relief the teens aren’t blithering idiots; their ultra-tech-savviness is taken as a given. Some of the dialogue is fun, such as when one of the boys threatens to go where the tormenter is IRL (in real life) — the response, possibly from the dead girl, is, “Sounds great. But you wouldn’t like it here.”
Despite those thumbs-up moments, however, the film epic fails its most basic mission — to scare. It resorts to jumping out of cupboards early and often. The plot is a cyber-rehash of I Know What You Did Last Summer and its endless ilk; yet another ghost in the machine coiling to shout “Boo!” Sometimes characters behave logically. Sometimes. There are painfully obvious tricks to contain the action on that laptop screen.
Digital bells and whistles and all, the film reads as a good-old chamber drama in which fairly obvious secrets are dragged to the surface. The inevitable meltdowns feel unearned due to predictable, yet unmotivated, character turns. There’s no one to root for, not even the dead girl. Nothing seems important enough. Even the damning bullying incident has little impact, amounting to a murder spree over embarrassment.
It may be that all that energy spent on presentation sapped some juice from the basic underpinnings of the script — character development, believable relationships, motivation. Since the stakes feel low, it becomes another death-countdown potboiler; an ’80s slasher film shot on Skype.
Sadly, Unfriended ends up being hard to like.
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Cast: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm
Rated: R (violent content, pervasive strong language, some sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, all involving teens)
Running time: 82 min.