Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Leo Gabriadze
Stars: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Courtney Halverson, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysoicki, Renee Olstead, Matthew Bohrer, Heather Sossaman.
Paranormal cyber activity? This low budget but effectively spooky vengeful ghost story deals with the pervasive issue of cyberbullying, a serious topic that is still ripe for exploitation. This gives Unfriended a relevance and immediacy missing from most teen horror films these days.
An unflattering video nasty of a high schoolgirl named Laura Barns was posted on YouTube, depicting her drunk at a party, which led to backlash on social media. After a couple of days of a relentless on-line campaign of cyber bullying and nasty comments Laura committed suicide, and the video went viral.
On the anniversary of her death, six friends are chatting on-line via Skype, engaging in the usual trivial banter. The six characters are basically your typical stereotypes and fairly one-dimensional characters. Blaire (Shelley Hennig, from tv series Teen Wolf) seems to be the social leader of the group; her boyfriend is Mitch (Moses Storm); Val (Courtney Halverson) is the uptight bitchy one; Adam (Will Peltz) is the handsome smooth jock; Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is the overweight computer nerd who cracks jokes all the time; and Jess (Renee Olstead) is the vain and selfish one.
Then they notice that a mysterious person has been sitting in on their conversations. They dismiss this intruder, who goes by the name of Billie, as a cyber troll, but they are unable to get rid of him. Billie then tells them that if they hangup they will die. One by one the six friends are turned against each other in a game of truth telling as Billie demands to know who posted the humiliating video of Laura online. It becomes clear that this mysterious figure is out for vengeance. Slowly secrets and lies are revealed as the tension and suspicion escalates, increasing the drama and altering the group dynamics. One by one they are picked off in sometimes gory fashion.
Rather than using the found footage gimmick that has become a fixture of low budget horror films of late, Unfriended takes place entirely within the confines of a computer Skype window, where we get to see the six characters from the one point of view. This is the first feature film script from writer Nelson Greaves and it is surprisingly effective. One of the producers is Oren Peli, the filmmaker behind the successful and lucrative Paranormal Activity franchise, and his influence can be seen in the visual style of the film.
This marks the Hollywood debut for Russian director Leo Gabriadze (Lucky Trouble, etc), who uses the low budget aesthetic to effectively ramp up the suspense and growing sense of discomfort. He even manages to incorporate many of the usual software glitches of Skype into the film – the screen freezes or pixelates, and occasionally the vision dops out – giving the film an unusual surface look and texture. Even the Skype ringtone takes on an air of menace here. The drama also unfolds in real time, shot in a series of long takes, which adds a sense of immediacy to the material. It is also quite claustrophobic as there is nowhere for the teens to hide or find safety. Cinematographer Adam Sidman has creatively shot the film, and he manages to suffuse the static setting with a palpable air of menace.
The performances from the no name cast are also quite effective as the main characters are a pretty unlikeable bunch. And the way in which the characters talk and their language is fairly typical and realistic of modern teenagers. A lot of the dialogue was apparently improvised during filming, which adds to the authenticity of it. And the film also manages to convey the hyperactivity and short attention span of most of today’s teens as they seem to jump from one open screen to the next searching websites for information.
Unfriended went through a couple of name changes during production – it was originally entitled Offline, then changed to Cybernatural before the title was changed to the more succinct Unfriended. But ultimately, watching Unfriended is akin to spending 90 odd minutes in front of a computer screen, and doesn’t make for the most cinematic of experiences. However it will probably hold plenty of appeal for the target audience of tech savvy younger audiences who spend their lives networking via social media and updating their Facebook status regularly. And the themes about cyberbullying and the dangers of the Internet are very potent and relevant.