Director – Levan Gabriadze
Writer – Nelson Greaves
Starring- Heather Sossaman, Shelley Hennig, Matthew Bohrer, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson
UK Cinema release date May 1st 2015
Much hyped and publicised Levan Gabriadze’s UNFRIENDED arrives with the sort of talk that greeted PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and BLAIR WITCH PROJECT before it, films that took technology such as home movie cameras, and digital cameras and placed believable characters in tense and dark situations not under their control, but rather played out by an unseen force or supernatural entity. Gabriadze’s film does a similar thing, but rather uses the apparatus of social media to craft a pretty basic, cursed spirit looking for revenge, horror story for the I-phone generation.
The majority of the film takes place on one of the teen characters laptop screen. Without any opening credit title card or even opening credits we are plunged into a webpage showing a video of the suicide of Laura Barns (Sossaman), shooting herself dead on school grounds. We later find out Barns, was a victim of internet bullying and harassment, caused after an embarrassing video of her was posted online. This use of the one laptop screen utilises the skype video chatting programme when our main characters all go online to join in a group chat with each other, offering the scriptwriter to display a realistic teen talk that is made believable by the cast.
The only problem is that there seems to be one person who has joined the group chat that no one knows about. Trying to all log off then go back on won’t get rid of this creepy “Skype stalker” and a series of sinister messages directed to one of the group, Blair (Hennig) lead her to believe that something far creepier than a stalker is at play. Only when one of the group is supposedly in peril after the police are called that the group of teens start to find themselves at mercy of the “Skype stalker” who is possibly the vengeful angry spirit of the dead Barns girl, who ironically enough has been dead for a year. So this spirits vengeance on the anniversary of her death leads the group to start spilling secrets of their own or face a nasty fate.
While admittedly the use of a laptop screen is already been tried and tested in two previous genre films last year (THE DEN and OPEN WINDOWS), UNFRIENDED takes on the tool of social media, and familiar software programmes to place its characters into a believable online universe, and incorporates with it the notion of internet bullying and trolling, that lends it to a film planted firmly in the present. This in many respects will help the film find its target audience, a younger crowd who will recognise the many software and social media apps that the characters participate in and even the idea of online trolling will be familiar to many. This might alienate older audiences who won’t be familiar with this technology (well maybe familiar with Facebook), and won’t be able to identify with the films teenage characters. However I feel that this is where the films strengths lie in focusing on what is now seen as the ordinary to many younger people, and turning this into a cause of horror and menace.
Also horror fans might find a familiar similarity to the “Skype stalkers” request to the group in asking them to “play a game,” recalling the famous phrase of SAW’s jigsaw. Admittedly the cast play their roles well, but one of the criticisms being levelled at the film is that they are particularly unlikeable, and yes they are. You kind of a get an enjoyment in watching them meet there fate, and there’s something faintly nihilistic in that thinking, but again I feel there is a reason for this use fairly nasty characters in that they have become so use to their online persona that they both participate and even approve of abuse of others, using shorthand typing to display their one sided opinion on people that they abuse, but only behind a computer screen and there complicity in internet bullying of people makes them shut off emotionally on the consequences that can ensue on their victims, and we as an audience get shut off from respecting or identifying with these characters emotionally, as we watch their fate play out, ironically enough, on a computer screen.
Like Jessica Cameron’s TRUTH OR DARE from last year, UNFRIENDED takes a dark swipe at online culture, and many respects the film can be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of online bullying. This film will divide many who might find the prospect of watching a group of unlikeable people annoyingly shout at each other in peril on a computer screen for 80 minutes, an ordeal, and possibly a waste of time to see at the cinema, and many ways this might work best as a home watch, ideally on a laptop or mobile device.
If there is a sequel to this (most likely as the film has grossed more than its $1 million budget in the US) it will be interesting to see if it draw on the origins of the curse and how it came to be. Either way I felt the film made great use of its familiar devices and paints a real world of people living a life online and participating in the group culture of internet bullying and not thinking of the consequences, combined with the age old horror tale of a vengeful spirit playing out its game on those that caused them wrong previously, yet updating it to this digital environment.