Unfriended: The Devil is in the Pixels

Director: Levan Gabriadze

Screenplay: Nelson Greaves

Cast: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead

Horror

83 min

 

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves have taken the next techno-logical step in filmic evolution by constructing an 83-minute feature in which the viewpoint is limited to the protagonist staring at her computer screen. A horror film feels like an obvious choice for such diegetic experimentation, since its tropes provide plenty of creative opportunities for strange breeds of visual cinema. Yet what is most impressive about Unfriended is that it manages to transcend the genre sheen of murderous Facebook friends and possessed playlists; beneath the glossy surface pulsates an urgent tale of cyber-bullying, online privacy and virtual addiction – themes which elevate the work from a technical curiosity into a thought-provoking digital shocker.

The story assumes the familiar frame of most horror films ever made, but let us run through the basics for good measure. A bunch of high school teens hang out in a Skype chat during the suicide anniversary of Laura Barns, a fellow student whose untimely death stemmed from a viral hate campaign orchestrated by unidentified classmates. The friends soon realize that their conference call is hacked by an irremovable contact, who inexplicably channels traits of the dead girl. All hell then breaks loose when the tormentor (sporting the alias “billie227”) forces the teenagers to play a game of “Never Have I Ever”, resulting in a steady discharge of skeletal secrets and backstabbing – in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

The script is hardly original; bits and pieces of the plot will be familiar from titles such as Saw, Se7en and I Know What You Did Last SummerUnfriended does however excel in weaving its chilling premise into the complex arena of browser tabs and pop-up ads, and the depicted online behavior is often edited and simulated to near-perfection. There is something tellingly human about a mouse cursor that frantically highlights arbitrary chunks of text, or a user's compulsion to download a suspicious file after everyone in the chat room insists on doing the exact opposite. The film effectively invites us to a voyeuristic journey with its e-addicted heroines and heroes, while dishing out the occasional comeuppance for their collective sins of click-sharing flagged content.

 

 

The revenge narrative has the satisfying aftertaste of an assured slasher film, and it retains a vein of dark humor in the form of psychotic smiley usage and aptly timed Spotify tracks (e.g. “How You Lie Lie Lie” by Connie Conway). Yet while the makers command a poignant vision of cyberspace and its social dimensions, the bumpy acting does dampen the overall immersion. The young and energetic performers (including Teen Wolf starlet Shelley Hennig) certainly look the part of Apple-savvy teens, but overacting does rear its ugly head as the on-screen bloodletting becomes increasingly...well, bloody.

This is however a minor flaw in an otherwise sure-footed indie gem that thinks before it shrieks. The divided reception of the film comes hardly as a surprise: the unorthodox concept and excess of computerized artefacts, such as the overfamiliar Skype chimes and endless divisions of webcam windows, are likely to deter most newbies out there (including the narrow-minded dinosaurs in the Oscar Academy). Yet to those viewers who are at ease with the desktop reality presented here, Unfriended may feel like an unexpected triumph, following in the pioneering footsteps of works such as The Blair Witch Project or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Just make sure you're in incognito mode when streaming this, for you never know who might be watching...