Release date: 1 May 2015
Running time: 83 min
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Starring: Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson
We’ve all come to know what to expect by now from a modern found footage horror film. A bunch of gormless teens run around with a camcorder, someone early on comments on how they film everything, they walk into a dark room, a loud noise happens, someone dies in an unpleasant fashion, repeat for 85 minutes, roll credits. Against all expectations, Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended manages to avoid many of these generic pitfalls, in part through a genuinely creative approach to storytelling, and partly by lacing this 21st Century horror with topical points about a very relevant social issue, that of cyberbullying.
The whole film unfolds in realtime, on the computer screen of our protagonist Blaire (Shelley Hennig) as she and her friends are terrorised by an unseen presence claiming to be the vengeful ghost of a recently deceased frenemy. A supernatural troll out for revenge on those who terrorised her when she was alive, she is hellbent on bumping off her tormentors in a variety of nasty ways, but not before publicly shaming them online first. With murderous games of ‘Never Have I Ever’ and some genuinely nasty death scenes, it is a film geared very much to the teen market. Fortunately there is enough to appeal to audiences who were old enough to see the Blair Witch Project in cinemas.
Gabriadze ingeniously uses all the familiar functions of a laptop to tell the story. Webcams on group chats keep all the characters together despite being in their own homes, Youtube videos are on hand to provide some helpful exposition, while Spotify drops in the background music (used to satisfyingly creepy effect in act 3). It’s not a 100% original method- Modern Family did an episode using this technique in their most recent season- but it’s a nice change from the tired and shaky, home-movie approach.
The director knows his way around a Macbook, but that is nothing compared to the tech-savvy teens who make up his cast. The internet has become the coolest hangout spot for high schoolers. A safe haven where they can socialise, shop, play games and, if the mood takes them, relentlessly a fellow human-being to the brink of suicide, all without ever having to go outside. As the horror unfolds and the body count rises, it becomes clear just how much can be controlled on a small computer screen. This is the real horror of Unfriended, the idea that a life can be ruined by a single photograph or video posted on social media. It takes the all too familiar story of attractive teenagers being dispatch in ever gruesome manners, and adds raises the stakes with an examination of how all these electronic luxuries can be turned against you at the click of a mouse.
It’s not perfect. The ever-rapid advancements in technology means it probably won’t stand the test of time terribly well. On occasion, it loses confidence and falls back onto more conventional tropes of the genre, and if only Gabriadze had the good sense to end the film about 10 seconds earlier, but regardless it’s a film that is full of surprises. Unexpectedly tense and creative, with a deliciously dark sense of humour, the biggest surprise of all is that Unfriended actually makes some pretty important observations about the dangers of living your life on the world wide web. The outside world is a scary place. Online can be even worse.