Horror fans, broadly speaking, have come to regard conspicuous gimmicks and ostentatious high concepts with skepticism over the years, as filmmakers—and, more often still, shrewd producers—have exhausted every novelty of form or structure in a bid to seize on the latest trend. So it’s with due caution that one approaches Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended, which is billed as “told in real-time, entirely from a teenaged girl’s computer screen.” A faintly desperate variation on the increasingly tired found-footage trend hardly sounds appealing. And yet, remarkably, the framing device proves thoughtful, even rather elegant—an appropriate vehicle for a work of intelligence and wit.
You might expect, given the restrictions of its computer-screen framing device, that Unfriended would make for a somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience, that the confines of layered windows and tabbed browsing would soon entrain a certain restlessness. But perhaps the most striking thing about the film is how utterly natural its presentation seems. We’re already so accustomed to this sort of mediation, of course, that observing the world of the film through the familiar architecture of a MacBook feels almost reflexive. It’s also an effective method of facilitating identification: We can easily imagine ourselves in the role of the protagonist for the simple reason that we can imagine ourselves moving that cursor or carrying out those keyboard commands. But this isn’t an exercise in new-media theory, and Gabriadze, loosed of any pretensions, doesn’t bother using this platform to rhetorize about the ubiquity of all this technology in our lives. Instead, the clutch of apps and programs and social networks of which the film makes extensive use are merely there, readily available and entirely mundane. It’s a sort of studied nonchalance. The film regards this abundance of technology in much the same way we do every day: as so ordinary to be practically old hat.
Ah, but it wouldn’t be a story of teenagers and computers if it didn’t engage with the zeitgeist in some capacity. And so we turn to the story. The computer screen to which we’re exclusively moored belongs to Blaire (Shelly Hennig), a popular high school girl who likes to while away her evenings listening to Spotify while she Skypes with her oft-shirtless boyfriend. One night their video chat is intruded on by several of their classmates—along with a pictureless mystery caller. It soon transpires that the caller in question is Laura Barnes, a former friend of Blaire’s who committed suicide after an embarrassing video went viral, apparently back from the grave to take digital revenge.
There’s a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to all of this, but the purpose isn’t merely to sensationalize; there are very real, very relevant contemporary anxieties coursing through this story, lending the horror a provocative charge. More impressive still is how effectively Gabriadze illustrates Laura’s brutal reckoning: When the genre-film spectacle arrives, it’s in full force, and the strictures of the framing device manage to amplify, rather than suppress, the impact of the shocks and scares. The result is a staggering thing—that rare breed of horror film to invent a gimmick and perfect it all at once.