Without a doubt, Unfriended is the most formally innovative horror film I’ve seen since Paranormal Activity. Like Paranormal Activity, it uses cinema to represent media that exceed cinema, unfolding in its entirety on a laptop screen. Like so much teen horror of the last decade, it centres on a high school video that goes viral and prompts a suicide. One year after the suicide, a group of friends who knew the dead girl are sharing a group Skype conversation when an anonymous participant turns up in their midst. Although they try to block this user – who styles herself “Laura”, after the dead girl – they find her infiltrating every other social media platform on their computers, and eventually extending into the hardware of their bedrooms and homes as well. All that takes place indirectly and by implication, however, since the camera never strays from one particular computer screen, whose owner and user – Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) – thereby becomes the main character in the film.
Clearly, this replacement of the cinema screen with a laptop screen is one of the most original things about the film. It was startling when I watched it on an Apple TV, so I can only imagine how it must have felt to people who downloaded, torrented or streamed it on their laptops. In fact, one of my friends assumed that he had obtained a corrupted copy, thanks to the rapidity with which the opening credits jam, freeze, splutter and give way to precisely the kind of desktop he was watching it on. For that reason, there is something about the film, from its very outset, that seems to recover the solitude that was once so precious to horror cinema. Although I wasn’t around to go to horror films in the 70s and 80s, my sense is that these films were ultimately targeted at solo viewers, or at least designed to have their maximum impact when viewed in solitude, which perhaps explains the popularity of late-night screenings, something that has tended to wane in the post-multiplex era. While it’s just as possible to attend a late-night screening in a group, there’s something about seeing a film in the wee small hours that lends itself to a different kind of mindfulness and a different kind of isolation from peak hour experiences. In the same way, the golden era of VHS and DVD rental pretty much enabled a new kind of residential horror viewer – a descendant, perhaps, of those horror fans who had stayed up late to watch televised and letterboxed versions of older black-and-white horrors classics. Paradoxically, the era of streaming, torrenting and downloading has both eroded and intensified this solitary spectatorship, just because accessing film increasingly depends on someone else accessing it at the same time, but in such a digitally remote fashion as to be almost inconceivable. By crafting a film that is ultimately designed to be watched on a laptop, with headphones, Gabriadze dovetails this newer digital isolation with something of the solitude of an older kind of horror cinema, not least because, in Unfriended, solitude, and separation from social media, promises at one and the same time to be an alleviation and consummation of the horror that emerges as the Skype conversation proceeds.
In many ways, this horror stems from the way in which we, as viewers, interact with the laptop screen in front of us. Since the conceit is so original, the novelty never wears off, which is to say that the mise-en-scene – or mise-en-screen – never ceases to be somewhat disorienting, which is quite incredible given how much of our lives we actually spend in front of our laptops. While I generally feel quite comfortable toggling between ten or fifteen different pages, platforms and activities on my laptop – I’m doing it right now – it’s another prospect entirely to watch someone do it, and to be forced to watch someone do it for the entire duration of a horror film. What is so liberating and relaxing, personally, becomes quite constrictive and claustrophobic when transformed into this kind of third-person spectacle, in a kind of sleight-of-hand that exposes how artfully social media contains us even as it promises to connect us. At the same time, watching eighty minutes of real-time laptop activity also makes you realise how much being in control of the cursor and keyboard allows you to maintain your focus across multiple platforms. Without that direct control here, the screen presents an almost unbearable proliferation of information, from the recommended links that pop up on the edges of Facebook, Skype and YouTube pages, to the Skype conversations and other features that are periodically relegated to the background whenever some more important window or platform takes up most of our attention. The result is the same kind of dispersed, distended distraction that characterises the best horror spaces – the sense that the horror could emerge, gradually, from any direction – except that it is entirely remediated here in terms of virtual space. Although the physical spaces in the background of the Skype conversations do play a role – more on that in a moment – it is this lurking proliferation of information that makes you feel as if something is awry with the world of the film, even if it’s not immediately discernible on first sight.
In that sense, Unfriended fits into a genealogy of films that are post-cinematic insofar as they seem to require the addition of kinaesthetic supplement between the audience and the screen; for these kinds of films, looking is no longer enough. Often, these films tend to draw from the language of visual gaming, offering up digital spectacles that seem oddly distanced and impotent without a console or other interface between the viewer and the image. In Cinephilia, or The Wind in the Trees, Christian Keathley draws upon Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time to argue that the great sensory achievement of modernity – and of modernist cinema – was to subordinate the body’s entire perceptual apparatus to the eye, in accordance with the primacy of visual cues in early twentieth-century organisations of labour. For Keathley, this explains why cinephilia, as a discrete atttachment to apparently insignificant parts of the mise-en-scene, operates by reinvesting the splendidly isolated cinematic image with a kinaesthetic drive that effectively re-embodies the experience of cinemagoing for the viewer. In that sense, it might be argued that cinephilia also envisaged the rise of what has been described as post-cinematic aesthetics, a state of cultural production in which the eye is no longer supreme, even or especially in cinema. Such films tend to acknowledge the inextriability of visual and kinaesthetic sensation and, in doing so, to craft mise-en-scenes of such enormous, fractallated complexity that it is not enough anymore to simply fixate on one moment as a way of restoring the visual-kinaesthetic connection. Again, for the most part, this complexity is figured as a function of the digital gaming, but the ingenuity of Unfriended is to take a fractallated topos with which we are all familiar – the digital desktop – and tweak it in such a way as to turn its banality into a vision of sinister and alarming complexity.
As with films drawn from visual gaming, the key to that sinister turn is the removal of an interface, except that in this case it isn’t a console but access to the cursor itself. For while we certainly get to “see” and “know” Blaire as protagonist through her many Skype conversations, both with individuals within the Skype group and with the group itself, her movement of the cursor across the screen says more than dialogue ever could, and forces us into the most intimate and suspenseful of sympathies with her thought process, especially as it becomes gradually clear that the killer – for want of a better word – has managed to hack into her computer and is watching her in much the same way that we are. At a general level, there’s something wonderfully uncanny about seeing a cursor moved by a character we never get to see; or, rather, seeing a cursor that brings its character into existence, as Blaire chooses what, when and how to share the information she receives with the Skype group at large. At the same time, however, it’s her indecision that generates the most suspense – those moments when she hovers the cursor between one button and another; when she types in a response only to delete it the next moment; or – most eerily – when she just moves the cursor around in a kind of digital doodle, as if trying to put together the import of what has just happened. For me, the scariest moments in any horror film are those when the character and audience start to apprehend, gradually and subliminally, that something is not right, and these distended periods of downtime, when Blaire’s cursor starts to trace out the connections and patterns that set the film in motion, are amongst the most suspenseful and unsettling I have seen in a long time.
Compounding that sense of dread is the way in which Gabriadze introduces freezes, glitches and digital interference into the texture and rhythm of the film. As anyone who has used Skype extensively will know, it’s one of the most anachronistic of social media in its susceptibility to glitch, and often feels like a relic of a bygone analog era – or at least feels like a transitional device between analog and social media that has somehow stuck around despite the availability of cheaper and more efficient communication options. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Skype ringtone, which has never really been updated since it first debuted, and which feels like something between an old-fashioned dialtone and a fragment of the distinctive sound that accompanied dial-up internet. Indeed, so anachronistic is the Skype ringtone that it always seems somewhat incongruous and jarring with my the digital desktop from which it originates, something that’s put to incredible use in Unfriended, where it intrudes at key moments with something like the presence of a serial killer’s mask, exuding a concealed gaze that is so out of place within the naturalised transparency of this social media universe that it might as well be supernatural. It’s no coincidence, then, that glitch tends to occur around the beginnings and ends of Skype calls, or when one participant abruptly leaves or joins the conversation, since the continual recalibration of the image more or less corresponds to the disarray the Skype tone leaves as it passes across Gabriadze’s mise-en-screen. Obviously, there is already something uncanny about glitches, distortions and freezes, but the effect is intensified when these Skype conversations are our only point of access to conventional “cinematic” reality – or, rather, the only point in the film at which it feels as if reality can still be accessed in a conventionally “cinematic” manner.
In large part, that’s because the freezes, glitches and distorions work to remind us how strenuously we still project analog expectations onto a digital image. For all that digital media pervade our lives, many of us still have a more or “cinematic” assumption that if we slow any moving image down enough, or distort the flow of images enough, we will ultimately be left with still images – a photographic sensibility at heart. By periodically glitching the image, however, Gabriadze draws attention to the way in which we project cinema onto post-cinematic technologies, such as Skype, in quite an uncanny and unsettling manner. Far from disclosing some inherent photographic granularity, or tending towards some isolation and simplification of the image, the deterioration of the digital image actually adds more to what we can see, or reminds us that there is more going on than we can ever hope to see. Whereas “breaking down” analog cinema makes it more accessible to visuality – a sequence of still photographs – “breaking down” digital cinema reiterates that it is in fact a post-visual medium. One of the wonders of classical cinema is the sense that we could, indeed, look at every single image in the film if we chose to do so, but the continual recalibration of the Skype image in Unfriended precludes precisely that forensic fantasy, leaving us in a position in which the ability to edit together the action retrospectively – the injunction of pretty much any horror film with a masked killer, or masked stalker – is discorrelated from our perceptual powers. The result is an almost unbearable sense of impotence in the face of the digital image that recalls the camera in Paranormal Activity, which, like the Skype camera, also was just analog enough in its clunkiness and sturdiness to make its digital affiliations all the more uncanny and surprising. The resultant sense of incommensurability – a visual experience rendered post-visual by being broken down into its constituent parts – creates a horror atmosphere in which both natural and supernatural explanations are capable of coexisting without contradicting or even entering into much dialogue with each other, at least not at the level of the audience’s perception.
As in Paranormal Activity, too, that digital component doesn’t actually preclude analog space: instead, what is uncanny is precisely the awareness of a physical, analog, “traditional” space that is still in existence but ruptured and qualified by digital ripples, currents and “disturbances” (not unlike the way post-continuity cinema doesn’t exactly “replace” continuity editing, but instead casually disregards it). In that sense, Unfriended also remediates classical suburban horror – or perhaps fulfils it, since the suburban horror films of the 70s and 80s were often preoccupied with just this incursion of a different perceptual apparatus into traditional suburban spaces. While these films may have framed this incursion as supernatural, it also feels, in retrospect, like an inchoate glimpse of digital technologies around the corner, with the result that there is something about the suburban spaces in Unfriended – like the suburban spaces in Paranormal Activity – that feels like the terrifying culmination and consummation of some great collective nightmare of what suburbia might become, or what suburbia might symbolise. After all, it is the very anonymity and inscrutability of suburbia in the first place that makes it so attuned to these kind of digital transfigurations, with some of the eeriest moments in Unfriended occurring when the “killer” entirely subsumes his or her presence into the interstitial infrastructure between computer and home, as if inhabiting and aestheticising the wi-fi ambience within which all the action takes place, or framing the wi-fi signal itself as yet another iteration of the micro-thresholds around which suburban horror, and suburban melodrama before it, tend to revolve.
If there is any weakness to the film, it’s that it doesn’t quite make good on this extraordinary aesthetic in the second half. In many ways, it feels as the filmmakers take a risk only to promptly doubt themselves – or pre-empt the media backlash – with the first half proceeding in and through the medium itself, but the second half feeling more like a commentary about the medium, with all the false consciousness and impossible critical distance that entails. Perhaps that’s why the second half gravitates more towards conventional cinema as well, foregrounding the Skype conversation so as to clear away a lot of the digital clutter on the laptop screen for something a bit closer to found footage horror or even torture porn horror. At the same time, the background clutter of the Skype conversations themselves is also somewhat denuded in this second half, with the respective Skype cameras more or less trained on close-up headshots, which again emphasises the sense of the camera as a confessional apparatus – a vehicle for final rites and recriminations – that so often accompanies a certain kind of found footage aesthetic. While I was enthralled by the opening half, then, and respected the experimentalism of the project as a whole, I couldn’t help but wish that the second half had done more to incorporate all those glitchy bedrooms, hallways and actual physical desktops back into the digital strata of the desktop itself, since the film was initially so dedicated to the laptop computer as both the vehicle and object of a certain kind of home invasion horror. Nevertheless, it’s a small gripe with such a fantastic film – all I’m really saying is that I wish that the film had trusted itself more, which is always easy to say in retrospect, especially about a film that pushes at the boundaries of cinema, and rejects the hegemony of the cinematic screen, as emphatically as Unfriended.