Even since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), horror films have tapped into the distinctly human fear of being a bad person. Horror films are about morality, and characters are often punished for bad behavior. This is why they’re so enjoyable. It’s not that audiences want to see innocent people slaughtered on the screen. It’s that the characters in horror films aren’t innocent, and audiences want to see guilty people pay for their past sins. Horror films are pure fantasy because they right the wrongs of society in such satisfying ways.
Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2015) adheres to this tradition, albeit with a 21st century twist. For 83 minutes, the camera sits still in front of a laptop screen, seemingly in one long take, as Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) interacts with her high school friends on the Internet.
In the film’s opening scene, Blaire watches a viral video of Laura Barns’ (Heather Sossaman) suicide. We don’t know who Laura is, but our familiarity with horror films indicates that she’s going to be important.
Before the film gets to Laura, however, Blaire’s love life must be established. She receives a Skype invitation from her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), and just as they are about to engage in what the millennials call “cyber-sex”, their intimate Skype session is infiltrated by their friends Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Val (Courtney Halverson). From here on, Unfriended is horror movie heaven.
The friendly Skype session turns threatening when a faceless account with the username “billie227” shows up. Blaire and her friends don’t know who billie227 is. billie227 claims Laura’s identity, and urges Blaire and her friends to stay connected to the Skype session. If they don’t, they will die. To spoil the rest of the film would be unfair, but it bears mentioning that billie227 contacts the teens one year after Laura’s suicide, and Laura’s suicide was caused by online bullying and harassment. Blaire and her friends have something to do with it, but what, exactly?
The theme of cyber-bullying gives Unfriended a ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness, but we must remember that horror films have always forced teenagers to come to terms with their cruelty. In Carrie (1976), for example, a teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) uses her supernatural powers to wreak havoc upon her cruel classmates on prom night. In Friday the 13th (1980), Mrs. Voorhees (Betsey Palmer) kills the teenage counselors who let her son Jason drown to death at Camp Crystal Lake. In I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Ben Willis (Muse Watson) stalks the teenagers who ran him over and left him for dead. In horror films, teenagers aren’t given a pass for their transgressions.
Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves clearly grasp Internet culture. Audience members must have an awareness of Skype, Chatroulette, IM, Facebook, and YouTube in order to appreciate the film’s attention to detail. When Blaire suddenly can’t click out of a certain link, or when she can’t forward an email to her friends, viewers must know why this is a big deal.
Unfriended is made for millennials like Blaire who will watch it on a laptop. Gabriadze and Greaves successfully update genre conventions for a social media savvy audience. In one scene, for example, Ken runs a computer scan to remove billie227’s presence from the Skype session, and each of the friends have a few seconds to delete all of their files in order for it to work. As Blaire races to delete everything, we’re reminded of those tense moments in slasher films when characters are given a brief window of time to run from one location to another without being caught by the killer.
In addition, film critic Christy Lemire makes a clever connection between opening the wrong door in traditional horror films and opening the wrong email attachment in Unfriended. Lemire explains, “You wait anxiously when some new photo or video attachment pops up for fear of the damage it might cause. It’s like screaming at the screen during a traditional horror movie: ‘Don’t open that door!'” (“Unfriended”, Christy Lemire, 22 April 2015)
Unfortunately, the dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack doesn’t come with any bonus features. If you’re like me, you’d at least want a behind-the-scenes documentary that details the film’s production. I imagine that it was incredibly complicated, and I’d be curious to know if the actors filmed their scenes at the same time, or if their scenes were shot on separate days. The casting director John McAlary deserves a lot of credit for finding actors who look like actual teenagers. They bring the right amount of douchebaggery to their characters, and their interactions ring true throughout the film.
Whether we like it or not, there’s a Laura Barns in all of our lives. Horror movies effectively tap into our fear that the stranger who stalks us in the middle of the night might actually be someone we once knew, and that the stalking might be a perverse response to our poor behavior in the past. Blaire and her friends spend much of the film avoiding this truth, and billie227 won’t stop until they acknowledge it. They can run as many computer scans as they want, but this is one part of the memory that can’t be erased. Sooner or later, they must face who they are and what they’ve done.