I suppose the unmitigated rubbish that is Unfriended fills some kind of need. If nothing else, it affords studios yet another chance to make a quick buck on low-budget horror pictures. It certainly seems to have convinced a number of otherwise rational film critics — along with some who don’t really qualify as critics, let alone rational ones — that it is some kind of profound and profoundly terrifying critique on social media, cyber bullying and the casual cruelty, hypocrisy — and utter lack of values — of the American teenager. (I haven’t seen so much undeserved gush since Paranormal Activity appeared in 2009.) I only wish the movie I saw was anything like the one they’re enthusing over.
What I saw was a mind-numbing gimmick completely lacking in nuance, point and even marginally likable characters — not to mention the slightest hint of production values. The movie — all of which takes place in something like real time on Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) computer screen — manages the not inconsiderable feat of making social media even more vapid, witless and boring than it is in real life. You might think that the addition of a vengeful spirit (I guess that’s what it is) would liven things up. You would be wrong. What we end up with is a bunch of truly unpleasant, self-absorbed teenagers (played by folks well into their 20s, of course) messaging in barely literate “chatspeak” and yelling at each other on Skype — all recorded in grating lo-fi to maximize the headache-inducing annoyance value. These “kids” start out loud and only increase in volume as panic sets in and their grubby, pathetic little secrets are revealed. Chances are you will not find learning these secrets an especially edifying experience.
The central idea of the movie — apart from getting you into the theater, of course — is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of Laura (Heather Sossaman), who was driven to the act when a video of her drunk and incontinent went viral, prompting a rash of cyber-bullying. (Her suicide, by the way, is also available online.) Well, it seems that someone or something — possibly Laura’s ghost — is out for revenge on those responsible. As luck — and the cyberfied dictates of the And Then There Were None formula — would have it, all of the suspected miscreants gather online for a Skype-athon conversation that will instill indifference of a positively supernatural level in all but the most easily amused viewers. Fortunately, there’s the additional presence of a Mystery Guest to add … well, not much actually. Then Blaire makes the mistake of breaking the first law of the internet — she answers a message from a dead person. (Remember this. It could save your life — much like not seeing this movie will save you ten bucks.)
Theoretically, all this will plunge the viewer into a nightmare of horror as more is learned and vengeance is exacted — all in low-resolution jittery online images. What we learn really is that all these characters are loathsome human beings, despite Blaire’s insistence that they’re all “really good people” — evidence of which is woefully lacking. The film wants to be a statement on the perils of the online world and the evils of cyber-bullying — laudable notions both. What it mostly conveys is that teenagers are pretty horrible and that it is ill-advised to engage with dead folks in online chats. As horror, this is pretty tepid stuff, too — with most of the shocks barely glimpsed on bad video. Let’s put it this way, by the 20-minute mark I was regretting choosing this over Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. The next day when I inadvertently saw the last five minutes of Paul Blart, I still felt the same way. Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens.