'Unfriended' spins a creepy yarn out of everyday tech (movie review)

Forget the vengeful ghosts of wronged classmates, the Mac OS X desktop is the star of this surprisingly effective horror flick.

Luke Westaway Senior editor
Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.
Luke Westaway
3 min read

Watch this: 'Unfriended' is a horror movie in a Mac desktop

"Haunted Skype" might sound like a laughably barrel-scraping premise for a teen horror movie. But by ensuring its tech-centric setting feels eerily genuine, " Unfriended" -- which hit US cinemas this weekend and will shortly debut around the world -- manages to be a cut above your average slasher.

In "Unfriended," a group of teenage pals have an evening's online chat disturbed by the murderous spirit of recently departed peer Laura Barns, who committed suicide having been cyberbullied after a shaming video of some drunken misadventures was posted to YouTube. Determined to expose the group's collective sins, Barns hits the clique where it hurts -- their computers. Cue 83 minutes of warped video chat, spookily vanishing "call end" buttons and violent, paranormal deaths.

The action takes place entirely on the desktop of panicked protagonist Blair Lily, who, along with her clutch of friends, are only seen via webcam in Skype video chat windows. As well as Skype, Blair is in touch with her boyfriend using Apple's Messages app, and has a direct line to the vengeful spirit of Laura through Facebook Messenger.

With technology's role in films often appearing laughably mismanaged (Peter Parker using Bing search in 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man" leaps to mind), it's to the credit of "Unfriended" that it clearly knows its computer-savvy audience, and doesn't patronise. The way Blair uses her MacBook will, I suspect, resonate with many viewers -- whether it's her slightly-too-untidy desktop, or that she can't empty her trash because a background program is using a file (in this case, a pirated copy of a "Saturday Night Live" episode).

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That desktop-only format is effective because the kids being haunted are just as savvy as the viewers. When her contact with one Skype pal becomes limited to audio from a police walkie-talkie, you see Blair frantically googling police codes to try and figure out what's going on. The scares, when they come, are all the more effective for being rooted in familiar services that we all use every day.

The film's use of sound also deserves a nod -- while scary sequences are signposted with a horror-standard menacing crescendo, there are also unnervingly loud notification sounds to make you jump, and pauses in the onslaught are made more unsettling by the static hum of Blair's hard drive.

The horror in "Unfriended" is schlocky, but its portrayal of tech is right on the money. Universal Pictures

Many of the film's tech-based chills verge on the ridiculous, but are nevertheless fun when they arrive. In one early scene, an online form is hijacked, causing every form field to become filled with the message, "I GOT HER" repeated over and over again -- resolutely ridiculous, but I confess a shiver went up my spine at the thought of that happening the next time I'm shopping on Amazon.

The phantom of Laura Barns clearly has a sense of humour about the whole affair and isn't shy about setting ironically titled Spotify songs playing on Blair's computer in the midst of the violent chaos. Another spooky moment sees Blair getting an instant message replying to a question that she's typed out, but hasn't yet sent.

Not all of "Unfriended" is so inventive though. The computer-centric setting aside, this tale of paranormal revenge is rather conventional, with the film's few twists visible from a mile away, and too many of the big scares relying simply on something very loud happening very suddenly. The teens themselves aren't all that likeable, and the last few seconds are so woefully misjudged that you're more likely to leave the cinema chuckling than shivering.

Finally, while the film touches on difficult and important themes around online privacy, safety and cyberbullying, the schlocky digital haunting is too absurd to leave any room for a serious moral lesson. (As an aside, if you're looking for something that tackles those issues more successfully, try one-off drama "Cyberbully", with "Game of Thrones" star Maisie Williams.)

While the horror is hackneyed, the presentation is fresh. "Unfriended" deserves credit for its well-observed portrayal of technology, and proving that the confines of a computer screen are still enough of a playground for filmmakers to tell a story, and occasionally make an audience jump.