Unfriended opens with a truly harrowing sequence: grainy smartphone footage, viewed from a laptop screen, shows a girl clutching something at arm’s length. There are shrieks of panic from an unseen crowd. You realise she’s holding a gun. There’s a crack and she collapses backward; you’re watching a snuff video, and one that looks horribly real.
As the protagonist, Blair, clicks through articles we learn the dead girl had been a victim of cyber-bullying. She plays a YouTube video that hints at a mortifying incident but it’s cut tantalisingly short when a Skype call rings.
This is how the entire film plays out: on the screen of Blair’s laptop. She holds group video chats, sends instant messages and watches YouTube clips. It sounds like hard work but it’s remarkably engaging, the familiarity adding to the building sense of unease. The mouse cursor flicks casually across the screen, drawing your attention to pertinent information.
As they chat, Blair and her friends begin to notice an unknown presence lurking on the fringes of their conversation, an anonymous intruder who appears to have access to their social media and email accounts. Partially obscured windows hint at unseen horrors.
It wears its influences on its sleeve – the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are obvious inspirations – and the characters are all horror-movie archetypes: the jock, the fat funny guy, the bitchy girl, the sensitive one, the boyfriend. Yet the result is strikingly original.
Unfriended is one of the first films to capture our anxieties over the internet, a place where mistakes can be excruciatingly public and horribly permanent. As one on-screen message reads: “What you’ve done will live here forever.”
First published in City A.M.