Movies – in particular the horror genre – are great at tapping into our digital anxieties, and “Unfriended” may very well be the ultimate representation to date. The action unfolds entirely on a computer screen in real time over the course of roughly 85 minutes, following a group of teenagers who get terrorized by an online presence. This omnipotent force takes the name of a girl, Laura Barns, who everyone thought had committed suicide after some particularly vicious bullying.
Laura threatens them primarily with the disclosure of secrets that each individual kept from the group, usually of duplicitous or just plain malicious nature. In particular, she uses the leverage from social media where images can be deleted but never really die. If ever there was any doubt why teenagers are flocking to apps like Snapchat where images supposedly disappear, “Unfriended” has the answer.
Writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze execute the daring formal conceit well, even managing to throw in some interesting micro-observations about the way people communicate with divided attention and crossed alliances. Yet no clever presentation can hide the fact that the story plays out like an episode of “Pretty Little Liars.”
At its core, “Unfriended” is still a bunch of whiny, obnoxious adolescents clawing at each other because of someone unknown, supernatural force. The film is sure to make Laura some kind of technical wizard, able to control the computer’s mouse and rewire the Internet at will. This makes her a little bit more frightening but a whole lot more ludicrous and unbelievable.
Still, “Unfriended” emerges as more positive than negative. This feels like the best case scenario for the kinds of assembly-line horror movies cranked out overt at Jason Blum’s prolific Blumhouse Productions. It’s entertaining and lowbrow enough to satisfy the lowest common denominator of moviegoers while also offering a little something to chew on for those who need a more existential terror to really scare them. B- /