‘Unfriended’ films put the ghost in the machine – sometimes literally (Movie reviews)

The first “Unfriended” (2015; see John’s review below) did a nifty job of tweaking the subgenre of found-footage horror, telling its story entirely through a computer screen. It’s cheap, it’s nasty, and at times it’s downright chilling.

The story, basically about a haunted Skype session, isn’t revolutionary but doesn’t need to be. The style in which the story is told does most of the heavy lifting.

The novelty of that approach has worn off some with “Unfriended: Dark Web,” and so the story needs to try a little harder. Much to the film’s credit, it mostly succeeds. That is all the more impressive because it drops the original’s supernatural angle entirely, opting for a (somewhat) more grounded story about a shadow conspiracy of murderers and sadists assembled in a shady corner of the internet who turn their ire onto the heroes of the film.

What ensues is a fairly straightforward horror/thriller with effective scares and some nifty twists and turns. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it has no ambition to.

The performances are all effective, and the story does a nice job of making us care at least a little bit about some of the characters before picking them off as the tension escalates steadily.

Things start to fall apart somewhat as the film’s conclusion approaches, and the workmanlike effectiveness of the rest of the film is undermined by a sloppy, haphazard and rushed ending. By that time, though, I had spent enough time gripping my armrests and peering through my eyes at the screen that it didn’t ruin the experience too much.

The tricky thing with this movie, though, is that it has two endings, each chosen at random before each screening. The ending I saw, which I’ll call ending A, is pretty lame, so the first thing I did after the movie was look up ending B, which seems far more original and unsettling.

It also pays off character arcs introduced at the beginning of the film. Reading about it, I became jealous of the people who got to see it instead of the ending I saw, which felt random and lazy. That makes offering a final banana rating on this a little hard, so I’ll have to give two.

– Michael Olinger

With ending A:

With ending B:

The saga launched in 2015 with the simply titled “Unfriended,” which left me feeling jittery more so than scared. Still, I have to give Blumhouse serious credit for launching a new subgenre of horror. Especially in this decade of the reboot/remake/sequel/adaptation, any new idea is to be treasured.

Written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Leo Gabriadze, “Unfriended” takes place entirely on the computer screen of teenager Blaire (“The Secret Circle’s” Shelley Hennig), who is video-chatting with five friends. The film will someday serve as a time capsule of this decade, as we see how the bulk of Blaire’s and her friends’ lives unfold before a computer screen and within the web.

Jess (Renee Olstead) says at one point that she lost her phone, so her computer is her only way to communicate with her buddies. (Well, except for going to their houses and talking to them in person. But one wonders if these close friends even know each other’s addresses.)

Even when they do something in the real world, it’s captured on camera and uploaded. Indeed, a video is the crux of the film: Laura Burns (Heather Sossaman) drunkenly poops her pants at a party, it goes viral and she gets made fun of in the comment threads. While some of my friends tell stories of drunkenly pooping themselves with pride, I guess it’s different for girls, or for high schoolers, or if it’s caught on video. Laura commits suicide (also on video, natch), then comes back as a literal ghost in the machine to terrorize Blaire and her buddies.

Watching Blaire work on her computer screen – video-chatting, texting, emailing, pulling up YouTube videos and doing Google searches – should be more boring than watching someone play a video game. But it held my interest for a good chunk of “Unfriended,” which is wisely only 83 minutes long. There’s a nice sense of building suspense as the friends – even computer geek Ken (Jacob Wysocki) — can’t get rid of this phantom caller on their video chat.

When the villain forces the teens to play Never Have I Ever, the film devolves into yelling and swearing. While it’s outright funny to learn about the secrets these people managed to keep from each other (in an age of no secrets), “Unfriended” gets somewhat hard to watch at this point. As the characters become less likable, I cared less about their fates – not that this is an immersive character piece to begin with.

The villain’s powers are inexplicable and unbelievable in a “Blair Witch” way, and the killings don’t have the shock value of, say, a “Final Destination” movie. When one particular character bites the dust, the web-cam is so jittery (admittedly, this is logical) that I don’t really know what happened.

There’s a slight sense of voyeurism in looking at Blaire’s screen for 83 minutes – something that drew generous comparisons to “Rear Window” from some reviewers — but it’s softened by the fact that she is a caricature more than a character (although Hennig is good, as usual). But “Unfriended” does immerse a viewer in another person’s computer screen, forcing us to examine the price of hours of our lives spent online versus the benefits.

– John Hansen

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