Ghosts can kill you and your friends over Skype. But first the ghost in the machine will make your life a terrific hell — one instant message at a time.
This is the core concept of Unfriended, a found-footage horror movie from director Levan Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves that takes place entirely on the screen of a teenage girl's MacBook.
As silly as the premise might sound, Unfriended is actually a surprisingly clever movie. It's far smarter and meaner than it looks.
The story begins and ends on the laptop of a girl named Blaire (Shelley Hennig). It's shot from Blaire's first-person perspective, as she scans through various windows of Apple's iOS system, Google Chrome tabs, and Skype. (For an idea of what this is like, check out the short film Noah.)
Through Blaire's browsing habits, we learn of a girl named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), an embarrassing video of Laura that led to her suicide, and that Blaire and her friends played some kind of role in pushing Laura to that point. Someone or something on Laura's account messages these friends through Facebook and Skype, leading to the emotional collapse of some and the unraveling of friendships among others.
While Unfriended is built around the bones of ghostly revenge, it's what the movie does in the margins, how it plays with ideas about communication and our attempts to retain complete control of our social identity, that's actually the most unnerving part.
Unfriended uses language we can understand
Unfriended's main conceit is that we witness everything through Blaire's computer screen. Every sensory aspect of the movie, from the music that plays (Spotify) to the establishing shots (Skype) to dialogue (iMessage), is tied back to this computer screen.
There's a familiar rhythm to how Blaire fiddles around with her computer and flips through the windows on screen. Part of that comes from how familiar most of us are with the interface. By now, we intuitively know what a Facebook alert sounds like, and how it's different from a Skype phone call's ring. And most of us know what the gray bubble means on an iMessage.
Unfriended plays off of this, knowing where viewers' eyes will go when an alert pops up or what they'll feel when Blaire gets a message on Skype.
It's a bit voyeuristic, too. There were points throughout the film where I found myself looking at Blaire's tabs (Teen Wolf and Forever 21), her Google auto-completes, and her Facebook messages for other clues about this character, her relationship to her friends, and her relationship to Laura.
Unfriended makes mean Mean Girls look dated
When it was released, Mean Girls was lauded for the way it portrayed catty, teenage friendships and the way — as in the biting three-way-call scenes — sabotage occurred.
Unfriended works the same way but takes it to a new level.
There's a layer of chat where Blaire and her friends, Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) interact. But then Blaire moves into a more private chat with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), to talk about their other friends. Blaire also talks with whoever is on Laura's account via Facebook messenger.
Talking behind a friend's back is different when you don't need to talk to someone face to face. There's a lack of humanity there. And it makes bullying both easier and even colder.
Val (Courtney Halverson) is introduced as someone the rest of the group hates. She's not in on the spooky, initial Skype call that brings all these teens together. It allows them to talk about how much they dislike her. It colors the way we process her character and what we expect. And when Val is brought on to the group call, we see the teens shift into more civil versions of themselves, barely hinting at the vitriol they're all keeping under the surface.
Val, of course, is no saint. But the point the film makes is more about the secrecy and lack of humanity in which we operate, and how our digital lives allow us to really lean into that.
Perhaps the scariest thing is when we're not in control of our own identities
One of the points Unfriended drives home is that we're very much in control of our image because we, more than ever, are in control of the way we communicate.
Since so much of our lives unfolds via text, we can write and rewrite sentences over and over. A period here, an extra couple of words there, or a "hi" instead of "hello" can change the way we come across. On Facebook or Twitter, we create an identity through a pastiche of pictures, "likes," and messages. Even on video chat, we can see how we look and change our posture or alter our body language.
We use this identity-altering power to make ourselves seem like people we'd approve of. That's why we "share" the things we do and "like" the things we like.
The teens of Unfriended learn that the absence of this control is just as terrifying as any ghost. Embarrassing pictures are posted without their permission. They get tagged in videos they want no part of. It all seems superficial and perhaps silly, since it's not happening directly to us.
But Unfriended wants to pose a question: is the idea of people finding out you're an awful person scarier than a haunting? Is that life even worth living? There are moments where Unfriended wants to make clear that at least for these teens, that reality is terrifying. This "ghost" could easily be a hacker, and could ruin the teens' lives as much as any paranormal force.
Ultimately, Blaire and her friends realize just how little they know each other. The way they think about each other is largely dependent on what they put into the social media ether.
What if the person you're dating isn't a virgin, as he or she told you? What if your best friend is really the guy who sold you out to the cops? What if your crush is actually a rapist?
Knowing your friends' deepest, darkest secrets — and knowing your own could be exposed — might make you want to take your chances with an angry ghost. At least you know where the two of you stand.