Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard// Film Critic
This review originally ran on VeryAware.com
“Tech panic” isn’t exactly the newest form of horror film, but thanks to the rise in cyber bullying and tech-savvy teens, it’s certainly the most resonant. In the early 80’s, we had director David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, a pristine horror film about television invading our homes. In the mid-aughts, we had PULSE, a junky horror about cell phones invading our lifestyles. A few months ago there was director Nacho Vigalando’s OPEN WINDOWS, and now comes UNFRIENDED – about the horrors of social media. It’s Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians for the digital era – but even that’s too high of praise. Essentially this small scale horror flick is the new generation’s version of “Don’t go in that (chat) room!”
High schoolers Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and Blaire (Shelley Hennig) are a young couple in love. However, they’re harboring a closet full of skeletons – not the least of which is that they may or may not have driven their classmate Laura (Heather Sossaman) to commit suicide thanks to a video that went viral. On the anniversary of Laura’s death, her ghost (cough, cough, in the machine) strikes back, terrorizing the couple and their potential partners in crime – which include angry Adam (Will Peltz), narcissist Val (Courtney Halverson), promiscuous Jess (Renee Olstead) and computer whiz Ken (Jacob Wysocki). The troll’s taunts start out soft, with some light slander on Facebook walls, and escalate to dangerous rounds of Skype’d “Never Did I Ever.”
Flipping back and forth between the different forms of online communication – such as Skype, Facebook, Instagram, iMessage, and surprisingly even Chatroulette (which feels so retro) – is handled fairly effortlessly. Sounds from the different social media platforms conjure an adequate amount of dread. One of the kills in particular has a very clever and taut twist that leads to the film’s lone genuinely suspenseful sequence. The stage players all do an okay job selling the semi-lackluster material – though, truth be told, Peltz goes a little too broad with his douche bag panic. For the actors, “Skyping it in” is the new “phoning it in.” The entire thing seems like it could be easily adaptable for a stage play, which is an ingenious, super subtle layer. Best of all, the film is breezy and is quick to get to the point. But sadly, that’s where my applause ends.
The remaining kills aren’t innovative and, in at least two instances, come across as goofy rather than scary. Unintentional laughter – not tension release humor – haunts the film, attached like a shadow. Perhaps worse, the scares are of the cheap “jump” variety provided mostly by the post-production sound effects. Audience allegiance to the characters is always in full-tilt “kill, kill, kill” mode – though I suspect Gabriadze and Greaves wanted us to change from sympathy to scorn by the midpoint. Nope. We hate them the entire time. From the moment Blaire undresses at her boyfriend’s (albeit playfully) knifepoint (which is not okay), to when the girls call each other “floozy” yet get upset when called “trash” (Le sigh, I can’t even with these rules), to when we find out what this crew had really done; they serve to grate on audience’s nerves and feel completely disposable.
Listen, if this serves as a teaching tool to the teen target audience, then great. But I fear it’s already too late for them to learn these important modern life lessons. When all is said and done, you won’t want to just unfriend this one – you’ll want to block it too.
UNFRIENDED is now available on DVD/ Blu-ray.