Unfriended (2014)

Rating: B

Dir: Levan Gabriadze
Star: Shelley Hennig, Heather Sossaman, Moses Jacob Storm, Courtney Halverson

Horror films based on technology tend not to date well. Yet, despite being the best part of a decade old, this is still mostly relevant enough to be effective. There are a few awkward moments, e.g. when an image inexplicably decides to download at sub-dialup speeds. However, the basic themes of online bullying and cyber-revenge are not exactly dated. Indeed, the Zoom-like format is something with which people are now much more familiar now, thanks to the pandemic. Flipping casually between apps is part of everyday life. Indeed, this could be the first horror movie which works better when watched on a computer than on a television, or in particular a cinema screen.

It begins with Blaire (Hennig) video chatting to her boyfriend, Mitchell (Storm). Other friends then join in, along with an unknown person who can’t be booted from the call. Is it just a glitch, or is there a literal ghost in the machine? For it turns out there was a classmate, Laura (Sossaman), who killed herself after an embarrassing video was spread, leading to her being bullied online. What part did Blaire, Mitchell and their pals have in her suicide, one year ago to the day? While that is the main question answered, a lot of unpleasant other secrets come out over the course of the film. It unfolds in real-time, and entirely through our view of Blaire’s desktop, with its various chat windows and applications, as well as the group call.

You do certainly need to cut the film a bit of slack. Quite how the vengeful spirit compels its victims to commit suicide – on occasion, in quite gnarly ways – is unclear. The teens’ reluctance to disconnect from the Internet, even as they are picked off, one by one, is also necessary to the plot. But this element is perhaps more plausible nine years later, when connectivity starts the second you wake up and runs until you go to sleep. Some of us now spend the entire day staring at screens of one kind or another, making the format less of a stretch than it perhaps was at the time of release.

Naturally, the online environment is different now: the likes of TikTok, Instagram and even Twitter are notable by their absence. There is not much to the performances either. However, they do what is necessary. All the actors do a decent job of making their characters feel like they deserve their unpleasant fates – not just by being obnoxious as in most horror movies, but actively malevolent. Even Blaire, who initially seems… well, if not innocent, then guilty more by association than deed, turns out to be culpable in Laura’s suicide. I’m not inclined to take it as some kind of serious statement about cyber-bullying: it’s considerably closer to exploiting the topic than shedding any light on it. I can’t see anyone refraining from harassment on the ground the spirit of their tormented victim might return from beyond the grave and make them kill themselves. Yet, as a moral fable, where bad people get punished, it’s thoroughly effective.