SXSW 2015 Review: ‘Unfriended’ is Worth a Poke

The horror genre has – and has long had – a very uncomfortable and ironic relationship to both good and evil. It celebrates the entertainment value of violence, malevolence and godlessness, but at the same time often metes out punishments on those who violate contemporary moral codes. Jason Voorhees targeted teenagers who did drugs and had pre-marital sex, which was perfectly in-keeping with the baby booming Reagan Era conservative values of the time, but no one could argue that he had the moral high ground. After all, Jason killed the fuck out of those teenagers.

Into that moral conundrum now wanders Unfriended, a horror film that punishes internet trolls by trolling them to death. In order to understand what’s even going on in Unfriended you need to have a vivd and personal awareness of a very despicable online culture, but if you do have that awareness then this movie at least arguably hates you. It’s a stiff middle finger to its own target demographic, and like that target demographic it is judgmental to the point of being absolutely horrifying.

Unfriended unfolds entirely on a teenaged girl’s computer screen, one year after the suicide of her friend, Laura Barns. An embarrassing video leaked online, and the entire internet community turned on her, chuckling about how she should kill herself. Now, as our heroine (if you can call her that) and all her best friends chatter about stupid crap on Skype, a supernatural presence begins infecting their computer systems, revealing shameful secrets and eventually forcing these adolescent monsters to kill themselves, too.

It’s a gimmick movie, and like most gimmick movies Unfriended sometimes bends over backwards to make it work. But like the best gimmick movies the conceit never gets boring, and it actually has something pointed to say. Unfriended accurately captures the everyday internet experiences we’ve all had at one point or another, frittering about from instant messaging to YouTube, freaking out about new posts on Facebook and fretting over whether we should end our comments with a period, an ellipsis or a question mark.

 

Unfriended Skype

 

And indeed, it would be disturbing if something that you counted on every day to simply work like it’s supposed to, just stopped working. Scandalous photographs won’t delete. Facebook friends who can’t be “unfriended.” Frozen Skype video screens that may not be frozen at all, and might instead be the helpless corpse of someone you once cared about. It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always inspire pure terror, but the sheer inventiveness of Unfriended’s gimmicky scares are always entertaining, if only in their construct.

But it’s in the moral grey area that Unfriended really embeds itself, taking aim at a brand new form of socially acceptable cruelty and firing kill shot after kill shot. The characters in Unfriended are just the sort of self-obsessed young a-holes we’ve all met at one point in our lives, full of judgment and lacking wisdom. They raise our ire but also eventually our pity, as their superficial preoccupations become their desperate undoing. They want to live in public but free from scrutiny, even while they take advantage of everyone else’s online vulnerabilities. And for that, Unfriended argues, perhaps they really should be punished.

And yet, it’s that very attitude that Unfriended takes towards its own victims that Unfriended is actually condemning. For all its goofy gimmickry and crowd-pleasing “boo” scares and dumb jokes, the disturbing relationship the filmmakers have with their own argument is genuinely horrifying, pushing what could have been just a fun time at the movies into a more complex and satisfying territory. It’s like being locked in a room with someone who hates you and might just want you dead, who gradually forces you to admit that you deserve their judgment. And that’s scary as hell.

 

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William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.