Web of hor­ror

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS -

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.

Un­friended

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

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