Although everyone will think they had the worst of times in high school, in truth, everyone suffers in their own ways (Buffy was right, high school is literally hell). Though when I tremble and look back to my own wonder years, despite whatever else happened, I’m frequently thankful for one simple fact. That I got out just before camera phones were everywhere. Before everyone had a camera, you could and embarrass yourself and it would suck like hell for a while, but eventually memories would fade and people would move on. Now though, with a video camera in every camera and pocket, one fateful moment can become a lifetime of suffering. Your life (social or actual) becomes easier than ever for the willing an uncaring to destroy.... but what if those actions came back to haunt your tormentors? This is the topic of group chat in the new horror film Unfriended as cyber-bullying comes back with a vengeance for these California teens.
Blaire (Shelley Hennig – Teen Wolf, Ouija), her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm - film debut) and several of their friends are pulled into a group Skype by the spirit of their dead friend Laura on the anniversary of her suicide. Unable to escap,e they’re tormented by Laura’s desire to expose their hidden truths with fatal consequences.
If a film that’s 80+ minutes of sitting in a cinema staring at a computer scene seems lame to you, please remind yourself that you probably would have done the same thing staying at home. In a good innovation on the found footage horror film flood, Unfriended takes this further into live footage setting itself entirely in real time. It’s a dangerous concept to sustain once the events kick into motion but Russian director Levan Gabriadze does this with considerable finesse with how he utilises the online/social media medium. The keyboard-smashing gremlins of the modern on-life like buffering, lag, and download times suddenly become terrific tools of horror essential tension. The Skype video/blur catch-up may get overused through the duration but the simplicity of the storytelling really shines through. We effortlessly follow Blaire’s train of thought via her mouse clicking as she Google’s messages from the dead or deliberates over-typing (or not) messages, negating the clichéd need for self narration in inexplicably speaking out anything typed. It’s incredibly well-paced, both in the moments of actions (tasks and typing take as long as they should without slowing things down) and in the dramatic flow once members start leaving the group chat for good. It takes just the right amount of time to absorb and recover from the major events before cranking the tension up once more. Yet the biggest victory here is the Kobayashi Maru over the dreaded hand held/shakey cam antics of found footage features. We watch from the still perspective of Blaire’s computer screen with various people in video chat windows whose cameras on a number of occasions shake and whip all over the place yet never feel frustrating or annoying for their grounded framing. Horror films in particular have taken a very tentative approach to the Internet to date, but Unfriended could be the viral Blaire Witch to change all that. You also have to give it credit for generational relevance as embodies the new age definition of “social”.
The biggest viewing glitches will come from die-hard horror fans. Unfriended does feature several good and occasionally brutal money-shot killings, but moments are all they are. Blink and you might miss them as the video feed quickly cuts in and out for shock intervals. It’s gripping and tense stuff, but may frustrate those looking to see the full screen HD gory show. The other real niggle is in the volume switch as Unfriended rips the worst page out of Non-Stop’s play book. It doesn’t quite reach the levels of Liam Neeson’s constant and infuriating text message alert sound but noises like chat messaging alerts and such are at times overdone. Yes, they do help maintain the focus of realism but occasionally at the cost of entertainment as their repetition grates a little. Although considerable redemption comes from great narrative use of Spotify.
Horror aspects aside, many of the forced truth exposures work extremely well on a dramatic level, as many a dark secret comes to the surface any the group even start turning upon each other. A lengthy final act setup revolving around the drinking classic “I Have Never” game even turns into a meta-reboot of a classic The Breakfast Club scene as souls are bared if more unwillingly. Again, the computer format supports this nicely as picture and video evidence can seamlessly be added to the narrative without feeling disruptive. The vengeful spirit troll even starts making memes out of them. Although at moments ,the simultaneous shouty/screamy antics of all chat members can get a bit nauseating we do quickly endear to many of the teens through their wit and humour. The opening Skype between Blaire and Mitch gets some good laughs and establishes them nicely as everyday youngsters well while still managing to get a demon voice and knife wielding demands in for good measure. When it wants to be, Unfriended does even achieve reach hysterics via an all too believable Chat Roulette cry for help.
In many ways, the cast are difficult to assess as none are ever seen in the flesh and spend large parts of the film in minimised videos. Henning does hold things together nicely at the centre, presenting a continual feeling of innocence even when certain skeletons fall out the closet. Having a recent Teen Wolf episode in her Internet history is a nice Easter egg. Storm starts out great but losses it a little when his character does the same. Will Peltz (Men, Women & Children) plays the jock bro of the bunch, even if he's a little annoying at times. Jacob Wysocki (Terri, Interns) is the cast highlight as the hefty Ken Smith feels like a young techy parody of Kevin Smith.
You will look at trailers and posters of Unfriended with a WTF, but this is an original, innovative, and rewarding viewing experience for the thriller and horror seekers alike. If the computer screen concept sits in your stomach like stale milk, then don’t risk it but if you’re feeling lucky, this could be the film you’re searching for. Its biggest creepiness is its effortless familiarity; this film could just as easily be set on your home desktop and in that level of automatic individual association it reaches genuine terror and maybe, just maybe may make you think twice before committing Internet cruelty. Unfriended is a request you should accept.