REVIEW: Halloween Horror Recommendations: The ‘Unfriended’ movies are good, actually

The horror series shows us our tech fears through our own computer screens

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Five friends start a normal Skype call that turns into a fight for their lives in “Unfriended.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Bradley Hinkson

With Halloween quickly approaching, why not spend that time recommending some horror films to get everyone in the mood for the spooky season?

There’s a genuine fear of what we put out on the internet. Can it be manipulated? Can we reveal too much that can be used against us? Will it come back to haunt us? “Unfriended” and “Unfriended: Dark Web” tap into those fears by having the audience witness them through a medium they know all too well: their own computer screens.

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Film has always tried to figure out the internet and its impact. You’ll get something lighthearted like “You’ve Got Mail” that tries to understand the world of dating and human connection in the early days of the internet. Then, on a completely different spectrum, and more contemporary, you get the “Unfriended” films. 

These films are formally unique with their real-time desktop overview, but are also some of the few films that successfully understand modern paranoia and concerns about the internet.

The first “Unfriended” starts as five friends join a Skype call (no Zoom here folks, this is pre-COVID) which happens to fall on the anniversary of the suicide of one of their late friends. As the call goes on someone, or something, has joined the call and is killing off each friend one by one.

“Unfriended” seems uncinematic. What can be cinematic about a whole film that takes place on a computer screen? Well, surprisingly a lot of things on our computer can play into the storytelling of a film.

The typing and erasing of messages can give us insight to a character’s inner workings and how their thought process works. Those three dots while waiting for a message can be suspenseful and stressful as you wait for that response. Buffering can lead to an effective jump scare. We take these little actions like nothing in our normal lives, but in this film they’re used in a fun formal way to build scares and tension.

The format of the film may take some getting used to, but so do the characters. We’re essentially watching cyber bullies, and like many of them, they’re just normal people who try to find any sort of genuine reasoning to force someone to take their life. Now that these bullies are facing the consequences, there’s not much they can do as they find themselves trapped almost literally in their computer screens. Despite being open to so many different websites and applications, there is something claustrophobic about the film. All we see of these characters is their faces in small screens. They’re stuck at home with nowhere else to go and forced to confront their own mistakes. 

It could be interpreted that the weapon this group used, the internet, is being used against them. The ghost of Laura Barnes, their friend who committed suicide, can easily hack into their social media accounts, post embarrassing photos and play their own game against them. Sure it’s far-fetched, especially when she can hack into printers and even fake 911 operators, but when taking the full horror aspect out of it, there is something satisfying to seeing these awful people get what they deserve. 

Although if there is one issue, the film deflates its somber ending of revenge to end on a cheap jump scare. It doesn’t ruin the overall film, but makes the ending just barely stick the landing.

Even with its pitfalls, the film still has some genuinely creepy and tense scenes. The creepiest image of the whole film is when Val, played by Courtney Halverson, stares right into her webcam and sits still. We’re unaware if her screen is just frozen or if she is just that frozen still. It’s unnerving. That’s even before we get to the most stressful game of “Never Have I Ever” you’ll ever see.

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“Unfriended: Dark Web” drops the supernatural elements to take a slightly more down-to-earth approach to the events. While constantly preserving a strong sense of disbelief, the film tries to understand the dark net, even though it’s something we don’t really know and probably will never fully understand.

Similar to the first film, “Dark Web” opens with a group of friends and their Skype call, though no former cyberbullies here. Matias, played by Colin Woodell, is using his brand new laptop that he won’t answer where he got it from, but the group does know that someone connected to the dark web was the previous owner. Him and his friends spend the night in a game of cat and mouse with people from the dark net to make sure the compromising contents of the laptop are not released, in fear of Matias’ girlfriend getting hurt due to their actions. 

There was a sense of hopelessness in the first film with how the characters felt trapped in their own computers and the audience was stuck watching it all unfold, which continues here, but feels even more somber. 

Since this time around the threat is real people, the characters feel more helpless, especially because the people messing with them may have had everything planned out beforehand. While the film takes a more tense thriller approach than the full horror of the first film, there is something so frightening about the idea that there could be people anywhere in the world who could easily manipulate everything in your life through a simple computer hack. 

Should you look to this film as some kind of realistic portrayal of the dark web and hacking? Absolutely not. It doesn’t need to be authentic if the film is able to capture why that idea is scary. 

I can take some logic out of the fear of your own words being manipulated in a fake 911 call and how it’s portrayed in such an intense way via a movie screen. In a world of deep fakes, this can be a genuine panic.

There seems to be a negative reception with these films. They’ve done okay critically, but audiences have never really connected with them. This might be due to the form of the film and how it all takes place completely on a computer screen. It can be too far of a stretch for an audience to take. But don’t let its desktop style deter you. These are effective little films that tap into our own fears surrounding technology and the internet in a fun and creepy way.

“Unfriended” and “Unfriended: Dark Web” are available to rent wherever digital rental is available.