Sometimes the most effective horror films are the ones that can find terror in the mundane. It’s all well & good to be terrified of humanoid freakshows like Michael Myers & Jason Voorhees, but there’s a degree of separation with monsters like that. You can imagine them stalking you in the dark, but they’re not a part of your everyday life. It’s the films that turn the familiar into threats that can cut a little closer to home. Jaws scares us about what’s lurking in water. It Follows scares us about the vulnerability of sexual encounters. Alien scares us about venturing into outer space. You know, everyday stuff. Of course, attempting to milk the mundane for scares can end up making a film out to be a punchline, like in the case of The Lift (an 80s cheapie about a haunted elevator) or in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. It’s a fine line to draw, but if a movie can turn something ordinary into something sinister it’s a lot more likely to stick with viewers once they leave the theater.
Surprisingly, the laptop-framed live chat horror flick Unfriended has it both ways. It’s so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as kind of a joke, but the commitment also leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of their own digital experiences. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both way more fun & way more affecting than it has any right to be. Unfriended uses real-life programs like Facebook, Chat Roulette, and Skype to lure audiences into the sense of a familiar online experience, but what’s incredible is how it turns those brands into something sinister. Its greatest trick is how it finds terror & suspense in a lagging video stream or a program that stubbornly acts on its own. The frustration & helplessness of those situations are common to a lot of digital experiences, but they generally aren’t caused by a murderous, revenge-bent ghost. Much like with other intangible spaces like television static & the isolation of outer space, there feels like there’s a legitimate possibility of a ghost chilling there. If a ghost were to exist somewhere, a haunted Facebook account or Skype session seems to be as hospitable of a place as any.
Of course, as its ridiculous trailer indicates, Unfriended is just as faithful to horror genre clichés as it is to its real-time laptop viewpoint gimmick. Just like every sound & image on display is a direct result of the laptop’s user (or the ghost that haunts them), every character’s wretched personality & grisly death feels preordained by horror movie rules, as if the know-it-all dicks from Scream were calling the shots. The teens in Unfriended are cruel, air-headed twits that deserve what’s coming to them: contrived deaths-by-appliances that range from being as goofy as the rogue soda machine in Maximum Overdrive to some truly grotesque demises. It takes an already-won-over fan of the slasher genre to enjoy the space Unfriended occupies between legitimately freaky and violently goofy. It’s not going to win over casual passersby with insightful musings on teen bullying & the vulnerability of our online presence the way titles like It Follows & The Babadook attracted larger audiences with their respective explorations of teen sexuality & mental health. It’s not nearly as intelligent or tasteful as either of those films. Instead, it pushes a gimmick that could easily outwear its welcome into some really creepy territory, while keeping in mind that its limitations require it to be cheap thrills entertainment above all else. Despite my moderate-at-best expectations going in, I found this balance to be surprisingly rewarding and encourage fans of the genre to give it a shot, regardless of how they felt about the laughable ads.