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'Unfriended' Almost Says Something Profound About Tech

What the cyber-supernatural horror film does right, and where it could have said more.

There’s a lot to like about “Unfriended,” a new horror film out this weekend that is set entirely online.

Everything happens from the perspective of a teenage girl looking at her laptop and jumping from Skype to YouTube to Facebook and so on. It’s a gimmick that works better than it has any right to, and would feel fresher if “Modern Family” hadn’t wrung a lot of comedy out of it earlier this year.

The film captures well — and milks for dramatic effect — some of the little quirks in how we use technology. For example, as described by the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd:

…information regarding the dead girl’s traumatic past is subtly revealed in a chat window, as someone waffles about what she wants to say, typing and retyping the words until she finds a suitably cryptic explanation.

Oh, right, there’s a dead girl involved.

Minor spoilers of plot details that were already spoiled by the movie’s trailer follow after this embed of that trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q72LWqCx3pc

The protagonists of the film, who are participating in a group video chat on Skype, are haunted around the Web by a presumed-dead girl named Laura Barnes. Laura committed suicide under mysterious circumstances exactly one year before the day “Unfriended” is set, after she was mercilessly cyberbullied over an embarrassing video posted online.

Unlike traditional horror movies, where a victim might conveniently break her ankle while running away from the killer, Laura’s targets are mostly stationary and glued to their laptop screens. So she gets inside their heads by turning off all their lights remotely, leaking incriminating photos and videos from their pasts or hijacking their online accounts to make it seem like they’ve said stuff they haven’t.

With the exception of Laura’s most important power, which I won’t spoil here but you can also probably infer from that trailer, everything she does feels like something a living, non-cyber-supernatural-ghost person should be able to accomplish. And I left the theater wishing “Unfriended” had gone deeper.

There’s some textbook horror-villain plotting at play here: Young people being terrorized by a force they can’t pin down, for the universally relatable crime of being young and stupid.

But what if that force were just other young, stupid people? Or what if it were a smart but ordinary human hacker, exploiting security holes in always-connected software those people depend on?

That might have been even scarier.

To its credit, “Unfriended” has some well-executed scares, and makes it abundantly clear that messing with people online can have serious consequences. But by shoving a conventional villain into modern tech, it misses an opportunity to really drive that point home.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.