Web of horror
If you are worried about what the kids are doing on the internet, Levan Gabriadze’s clever and creepy cyber chiller will do nothing to ease your mind, for reasons expected and unexpected. First, though, you need to know how this movie was made because it’s challenging to watch. The entire film, 88 minutes long, is seen only via the laptop computer screen of one of the six teenagers at the centre of the drama.
If this recalls The Blair Witch Project, that is no accident. Screenwriter Nelson Greaves has said the aim was to use the restrictions of a computer screen in the same way the 1999 horror hit used the limitations of a single camera. I suspect the name of Greaves’s main character is no accident either.
Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is online with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), talking by the video chat service Skype. She has some excellent news for him: at the looming prom, they will lose their virginity together.
They are joined by four friends, glamour puss Jess (Renee Olstead), handsome bad boy Adam (Will Peltz), geeky Kenneth (Jacob Wysocki) and, a bit later, unpopular Val (Courtney Halverson). With all six Skyping, Blaire’s screen looks a bit like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch.
They seem like normal teens (the setting is Fresno, California), but a shadow overhangs them. It is a year to the day since another friend, Laura Barns, shot herself after a humiliating party video was posted on YouTube. We see Laura’s shocking death at the start of the film when Blaire clicks on the suicide footage, and we learn of the pitiless cyberbullying she endured.
Suddenly, an uninvited party joins the conversation, and it ain’t Ann B. Davis as Alice. The cocky kids dismiss “Billie227” as a hacker or a troll, but when one of the girls mock-threatens violence, the intruder responds with a message that chills to the core.
It quickly emerges that Billie227 is using Laura Barns’s tech tools — her Facebook page, iMessage account and so on — and is out for serious revenge. The gruesomeness that follows, seen through the deliberately frustrating perspective of Blaire’s computer screen, suggests an alternative title: SkypeDay the 13th. I won’t be using my blender for a while.
Who is Billie227-Laura Barns? A living avenger of the dead girl, or the dead girl herself?
There’s probably a clue in the fact the film was going to be called Cybernatural before a last-minute change. Unfriended is a much better title because as much as anything this is a story about false friendships, something that becomes apparent when the six are forced to play a truthor-die game that draws out their malicious secrets and lies. It’s a brilliant scene.
The six young actors are all convincing, clicking through the tech maze like the experts they no doubt are, and Gabriadze burdens the narrow frame of action with an at times unbearable tension.
You want nothing more than to shut down the screen, go to the kids’ houses — to the real world, for goodness sake — and see what is happening.
There are significant plausibility gaps — why don’t they just go offline or call the cops or (heaven forbid) their parents? — but it is a horror film after all, and a successful one. Shot in 16 days at a cost of $US1 million, Unfriended has grossed $US25m ($31m) to date, assisted by strategic screenings on the festival circuit and a savvy social media marketing campaign. I wasn’t sure it would be for me, but I was gripped from start to finish and it has been on my mind since.
Restricting a film to a computer screen is not an entirely new idea. Zach Donohue’s 2013 murder thriller The Den used a similar technique and a recent episode of the TV comedy Modern Family was shot with iPhones and shown on an Apple MacBook (and the advertising aspect should be noted).
But Unfriended has a sense of timing about it, exploring as it does issues such as cyberbullying, the shallowness and unpredictability of online “friendships”, digital ethics (to help someone in distress or film them?), the lynch mob tendencies of social media and the dark alleys of the internet in general.
“Everyone was posting so we did too. We were just joking,’’ Blaire says in defence of a particularly vile episode of cyberbullying.
Yes, there are lots of creeps on the internet, and some of them are closer to home than you may think.
Shelley Hennig in the clever cyber chiller