The central conceit of “Unfriended,” the latest cheapo horror flick to sate you till summer blockbusters arrive, is also its motivating gimmick. Six teenagers gather online (mostly via Skype, iMessage and Facebook) and notice a strange anonymous character in the video chat room with them. Coincidentally, they’re all making plans together on the anniversary of a former friend’s suicide.
This girl, Laura Barns, seemed very close to our central teen character, Blair, if less so Blair’s boyfriend, Mitch. Blair and Mitch are the first to suspect that, in fact, this ghost in the machine may be exactly that, once they start receiving weird messages from Laura’s old Facebook account. In a let-me-Google-that-for-you moment, Mitch sends her a link to a helpful reference page that advises readers never to respond to messages from the dead, lest bad things ensue. Of course no one follows this advice, and you can guess what happens next.
Well, maybe you can’t, so we’ll pretend there are such a thing as spoilers in this 83-minute twist on the old trope of the malicious phone caller. All of the action of “Unfriended,” such as it is, takes place in the video chat and browser windows on Blair’s desktop (she’s a Mac). Clever though it may be as a storytelling technique — on down to watching her think as she types, backspaces and rewrites notes to her boyfriend or to her Facebook-user-beyond-the-grave antagonist — it’s also the epitome of claustrophobia. Escapist entertainment this isn’t, not for anyone who spends too much of his or her day looking at a computer screen.
It also has the drawback of feeling like a movie made on someone’s laptop. Director Levan Gabriadze debuted this $1 million feature at South by Southwest this past March; it quickly has recouped that and $15 million more, even as “Furious 7” threatens to suck up every last bit of money in box offices around the world before the “Avengers” sequel lands. The word-of-mouth for “Unfriended” simply cannot be all that great. A few jumps and squeals aside, the main adjective I heard from the teenagers in the screening I attended was “loud,” followed by “short.”
Dependent as it is on the tech tools we use right now — Skype, iOS messaging, Google, Facebook, YouTube — there’s an excellent chance that “Unfriended” will not age well; anthropologists finding it in the distant future of, say, two or three years from now will guess with confidence that it came out in the spring of 2015.
The movie does, though, justify its existence to a degree with passable acting (at least by the standards of a no-name horror casts) and in addressing the sure-to-endure bullying that comes from mixing teenagers and technology. Turns out this haunting suicide has a fairly legit set of reasons for wanting to pick on her old friends: They started it. Before she killed herself, Laura got wasted at a party, and turned up on video in some compromised situations. The YouTube feedback was full of explicit overtures for her to kill herself. Another reason never, ever to read the comments.
“Unfriended” does deal straightforwardly (if supernaturally) with the fallout from cyberbullying, almost as a vulgar, gory, PSA against picking on people. Teenagers still somehow miss this point, so it’s not the worst thing for them to be reminded, in brief and overloud fashion, not to be spiteful little trashmonsters to one another, when given the option.