Unfriended (2015)

UnfriendedOne year after the death of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a victim of cyber-bullying who took her own life after a humiliating video was posted online, Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) is watching footage of the incident itself on YouTube when she is contacted by her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Blaire and Mitch are soon joined by friends Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), Ken Smith (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), along with an unknown user with the avatar billie227. At first dismissing the sixth party as a glitch, before incorrectly intimating another acquaintance as the culprit, the group are forced to confront the intruder when it begins communicating with them. Instigating a game of Never Have I Ever, billie227 — using a Skype account that once belonged to the deceased — forces the friends to reveal increasingly incriminating secrets about one another. But is it really Laura Barns, and why is she out for revenge?

Arriving hot on the heels of It Follows, another well-received horror movie that built up buzz on the festival circuit, Unfriended — or Cybernatural, as it was previously known — has been a huge hit for Universal Pictures, the logo for which has been gamefully digitised (or glitchified) for the movie’s opening titles. Conceived by Night Watch‘s Timur Bekmembetov, written by Kiel Kimsey and directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended takes place on Lily’s computer monitor, as she clicks between iTunes, Facebook and Skype on what might otherwise have been a perfectly ordinary evening online. It’s an ingenious gimmick — like found footage it immerses you in the drama completely — and thanks to editor Parker Laramie it really does look and feel as though you are watching authentic, real-time, undoctored footage of a teen’s activities online. What’s more, the jumpy footage lends itself to a number of equally jumpy moments.

It is by playing with this sense of familiarity and apparent transparency that Unfriended builds its suspense — in addition, that is, to a low, Paranormal Activity inspired rumble that is never referenced or explained. We see everything Blaire sees, from her group chats and her private messages to her covert browsing online. It’s amazing just how much can be accomplished through the format, and as Blaire chooses her own soundtrack, reveals elements of her backstory through her search history and furthers the plot by doing research online (a certain link apparently pinned to the top of every Google page) it becomes ever more remarkable that nobody thought to do something similar sooner. Well, Hideo Nikata arguably did just that with Chatroom — but with nowhere near the same commitment, credibility or indeed success. The cast are exceptional, their performances never feeling in any way impeded by the format, while billie227’s blank profile is endlessly unsettling and the ghostly glitches that haunt the various Skype connections keep you on edge. It’s amazing just how much a character’s online presence — what they type, and sometimes what they don’t — can tell you about them; Lily is one of the most well-rounded protagonists in recent genre history.

Although thematically Unfriended is very strong — its treatment of cyber-bullying, suicide and possible sexual abuse is particularly troubling — it is substantially less successful when actively trying to scare. The decidedly J-horror conceit is a good one, the ultimate internet troll making for a novel antagonist, but his, her or its actions and motivations are never as interesting as they should be. Suicide has never been a particularly scary weapon for any boogeyman (as films like Pulse or last year’s Ouija further serve to prove) but the issue is compounded here by a failure to establish a consistent tone or an obvious internal logic. One character, having angered billie227, mangles first his fist and then his face in a broken food processor, in the sort of elaborate death stunt that might be perfectly welcome in a Final Destination or Friday the 13th sequel but feels completely out of place here. It’s never entirely clear what influence billie227 has, exactly; the user is seen to hack computers, tamper with lights and knock on doors…and occasionally compel characters to headbutt furnishings. Greater clarification, or even greater ambiguity, would have solved the problem.

While it might not reach the same heights of It Follows, particularly in terms of mythology and mounting dread, Unfriended is still a horror movie to be reckoned with. Intelligent, intuitive and insightful, it tries — admirably, if somewhat self-defeatingly — to put the curse in cursor.

4-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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