Unfriended is about a group of teenagers with a dark secret who are being hunted by a mysterious killer. Slowly, the truth about what really happened all those years ago is revealed, and at the same time characters are murdered one by one. It’s the standard slasher plotline, the same one that appears in Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and countless other films of variable quality.
To be fair though, Unfriended does attempt to break the mould and do something new(ish). This is not a normal slasher film; this is a modern, high-tech slasher for the digital age, for people with four different web-capable devices and a Google+ account.
What that means in practice is that Unfriended is told almost entirely through screens. We watch everything from behind the main characters’ shoulder, as she communicates with her friends using various different sites and services. Under a minute of the film, by my count, is not filtered through another screen.
It’s a very noticeable conceit, and it’s not too badly done. Some irritation is unavoidable, as filtering the events through computers necessarily loses some detail, but Unfriended manages the framing device a lot better than I expected it too. Horror is meant to reflect the fears and obsessions of the age, and there are loads of films that are trying to do so, desperate to make social media scary. This film comes closer than a lot of them.
The plot requires suspension of disbelief; the characters are young, still living at home, and yet each of them has a litany of awful crimes to confess to, crimes that are slowly revealed throughout the film. I don’t feel that I was a particularly saintly teenager, but I don’t have even one awful act that matches the gravity of theirs. Each character, during their short time on Earth, has done several different things to make them murder-worthy.
Similarly, you have to be forgiving about the computer stuff. The killer has total control over everything, managing to seamlessly control countless computers at once. The token nerdy character has a similar power, adapting far faster to situations than is really feasible.
Parts of the film are rather rushed, which is probably at least partly to do with the framing – it’s difficult for characters to do meaningful research into the killer, or to attempt escape, when they are tethered to the part of their bedrooms shown by their webcams. It’s unclear at all points what the killer is or can do, which bugs me somewhat – the reveal of the killer is an important part of a slasher film, and here it’s just side-stepped. There is tension, but it never really gets to go anywhere – a bad thing is threatened, and then it happens, because there’s no time in between to build worry when using instant messaging.
It’s a somewhat clever film, trying to do something complicated and high-concept. I appreciate that. However, in the effort to make the framing work, it seems that the actual plot was neglected. There’s potential, but it isn’t really full explored. The film needs more detail, more tension to justify itself. In the end, it’s a nice idea that doesn’t quite manage to come off.