When I saw Unfriended with actual friends last night, I was expecting two hours (actually 88 minutes) of cheap thrills and lame gimmicks. After all, the story plays out entirely on a single teenager's computer monitor -- involving a dizzying array of social media platforms -- and rips the issue of cyber-bullying straight from the headlines. The marketing campaign even included a fake Facebook page and viral video. Could it pander to teenagers any more?
But instead of being just a flat rip-off of current trends, this first film from writer/producer Nelson Greaves is surprisingly inventive, eerie, and fresh -- even throwing in some Final Destination-style gore for folks who need that kind of roughage in their horror diets. (Others agree: It got an 86 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
In Unfriended, the haunted social network isn't just a background prop; it's a sinister, mysterious, and seemingly omnipotent character unto itself. And because it uses online tools many of us are familiar with ("Why can't I un-invite this user?!") versus standard horror tricks ("Why is slime coming out of the walls?!") the horror actually seems contemporary and realistic, without being overly comical. The "cool, we're all on the Internet!" novelty wears off after about 10 minutes, and soon we're all breathing the same virtual air.
It also helps to see teens tackling authentic anxieties and dramas in their true, if juvenile, voices -- not as walking, talking Breakfast Club stereotypes so common to horror films. They're dumb and melodramatic, but realistically dumb and melodramatic.
The low-rent special effects are sufficient, if not brilliant, and the spirit-out-for-justice plot is pretty standard, but the pacing is suspenseful and effective, especially as the group plays a perilous game of "Never Have I Ever."
But the film succeeds mostly thanks to how creatively it leverages this virtual setting. These characters don't use social networks so much as exist through them, and that's fertile ground for unsettled spirits. That the entire story plays out on video chats, email messages, Chatroulette, music playlists, instant messaging, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts -- yet firmly holds our attention even as we're watching words -- is a credit to filmmakers who know enough about social media to exploit what's truly creepy about it.
In a genre so overloaded with "found footage" set-ups, this may be the first "found Facebook" horror flick. What's not to Like?
A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".
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