Release Date: April 17th, 2015 (US); May 1st, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz
Sitting in the cinema, half regretting my decision to see another potentially uninspired scare-free jaunt, half suppressing those cynical emotions, it became impossible to avoid the endless stream of horror trailers. Insidious: Part 3 — Even More Insidious (I think). A Poltergeist remake (Poltertwice, I think). There were probably others. To judge a film before seeing it is unfair and ultimately pointless, however the trailers all shared that annoyingly familiar ‘quiet, quiet, quiet… BANG!’ effect. It was obvious then that Unfriended needed to bring something fresh to an often exploited genre.
Much like The Blair Witch Project was back in 1999, Levan Gabriadze’s film is, for the most part, refreshingly different. Not afraid to embrace its target audience, the entire 83 minutes are relayed to popcorn-crunching teens and young date-nighters via computer screen. As a result, Unfriended is able to manoeuvre around the usual formalities and upload some genuine moments of terror. The monitor format is a novelty but it is one that surely reverberates with many viewers who feverishly delete search histories and spend far too long formulating replies to mates.
The computerised approach neatly ties in with the overarching theme too: cyber bullying. A group of high school students reconvene over Skype for what appears to be common nightly arrangement. It is Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) screen through which we gaze, making her the central character and also the least offensive. She is online with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and three others — Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam (Will Peltz).
As the insufferable clan — for once, it looks like they’re supposed to be insufferable — banter back and forth, an unknown caller joins the conversation. Unable to fend off the uninvited, the group grow increasingly wary. As it turns out, this is the first anniversary of the death of Blaire’s childhood pal Laura Barns, who committed suicide after a bout of bullying. Is the appearance of this immovable online intruder a coincidence? Unlikely. Bad stuff is about to go down.
From the moment we log into proceedings there is a sense of unease. The Universal Pictures logo freezes up, doing that pixely thing your laptop screen does when you’ve left Netflix on pause for too long before eventually pressing play again. Avoid the impulse to charge out and complain about more shoddy projectionist work though — Unfriended is simply getting into its techno-distortion mentality. There is a lot more pixel interference to come.
This is a film aimed at the younger audience, and its attempt to relay an anti-bullying message is noted (though the chat in class tomorrow will probably be about blenders and Blaire’s iffy iTunes content). For a while it does feel like an R-rated public service announcement; like one of those road safety talks in school where you know the speaker, having finished flagging up things you shouldn’t do when behind the wheel, is about to reveal a harrowing true story involving a nearby accident. In Unfriended the thing you shouldn’t do is be a bully and the harrowing accident(s) is shortly forthcoming. Fortunately, by then PSA-mode is on the back burner.
We Millennials are an easy lot to scare — “Laura Barns” has unsurprisingly become a top YouTube and Google search — but the disconcerting atmosphere that lingers throughout Unfriended is authentic. Though this is still a Scream-esque roulette of death, the delivery unique. The computer screen framing method is overcrowding, leaving nowhere to look as group members are set for the chop. The first casualty is the most unsettling — this person’s still image left to linger on screen, subsidised by an oddness and a feeling that something isn’t right. As the evening wears on, Gabriadze incorporates a few subtle elements that bolster the drive for believability. For instance Blaire’s mouse cursor becomes an indicator of panic, moving more rapidly when she feels threatened.
Sadly, annoyingly, the generic pitfalls are there: dumb characters (they aren’t initially aware that it’s the anniversary of their friend’s death) and lazy scares. Blaire, despite her apparent internet savviness, doesn’t know what an online troll is. In 2015. And why don’t these people just simultaneously scamper to a nearby neighbour’s house for help? Perhaps the idea is that they’re all too sucked in by the grisly online culture to remove themselves from it, but even that seems a bit far-fetched in a life or death scenario. They also all appear to live alone, though to be fair that isn’t unrealistic given their prevailing lack of personableness.
It is entirely likely that the characters are supposed to be somewhat lame — they are bullies after all — however the shift towards lazily constructed frights is disappointing. A death involving a blender does pang you right in the sternum with a dollop of discomfort, but it is only momentary. Only brief and unimaginative, scaring you in the same way a random fire alarm blaring would. The aforementioned creepy images lodge into our headspace because they’re given more time to fester on screen, and because there often is something alarming about peculiarity.
The actors, who essentially spend an hour and a half manufacturing disturbed faces and loud shrieks through webcams, are perfectly fine. One asserts, “What we’ve done here will live forever,” capturing the film’s ethos in a nutshell. It is a pertinent message. Don’t be a bully, period. Don’t stock up on future regret through social media misuse either. In that sense Unfriended is scary, but it is also- ah, hold on. I have an incoming Skype call.
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures