Unfriended delivers smart, chilling cyberhorror

Unfriended delivers smart, chilling cyberhorror

GENRE CHANGER: Shelley Hannig stars in Unfriended as Blaire, a high school girl who spends most of the film Skyping with her friends.

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Title: Unfriended
Rating: F5
Short review: An innovative horror exercise exploring how online social dynamics affect real people.

While cell phones and general electronic connectivity as a whole have been incorporating themselves into the horror genre for a while — particularly in Japan, where films like Ringu, Kairo, Phone and the original One Missed Call made such technologies weapons under the power of angry revenants — Unfriended makes the leap connecting technohorror and the first person subgenre to astonishing effectiveness.

Ninty-nine percent of the film is simply the computer screen of Blaire (Shelley Hannig), a high school girl talking with a few classmates and boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) over Skype.

An unknown person with no avatar enters their chat, and Blaire begins receiving ominous, threatening Facebook messages from the account of Laura, a former friend who had committed suicide a year before after severe cyberbullying.

Blaire and her friends soon discover their systems have somehow been hacked and under the control of this uninvited outsider, who seems to seek vengeance for Laura's online abuse. It isn't long before they find themselves in mortal danger and virtually at each other's throats as they try to save themselves from whatever fate the would-be Laura has in store for them.

The concept of an entire film told over a multi-person Skype chat and various other social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and LiveLink works. It helps that the filmmakers have licensed the proper sites to use as opposed to the usual fakery to avoid rights issues, adding that much more reality to the screen we see, er, onscreen.

The cast and its performances are strong, proving capable of handling some very intense emotional material in the latter half of the film. The characters aren't anything particularly revolutionary — a chubby, politically-incorrect net nerd, a girl who parties too hard, an ultramacho douchebag, etcetera — but it's the material they're given to deliver that's the key, and they do that magnificently.

At the film's core is an exploration of various aspects of identity in the era of online social media, particularly how easy it is to build and destroy reputations — and lives — with simple, badly thought out decisions.

The evidence of this is in the headlines all the time. Cyberbullying is, of course, a hot topic right now and has been for some time, but it goes beyond that. Current wisdom states that anything that's put on the net is there forever just waiting to be discovered, a theme the film examines in a few important ways which are thought provoking, given real life counterparts of similar situations.

Humiliating videos (remember Star Wars Kid?) and cyberbullying are, of course, obvious examples, but others come to mind. A story broke last week about a young vet in Texas who'd posted a picture of herself with a dead "feral" house cat she'd killed by shooting an arrow through its head. The internet turned on her with what eighties action movies used to call "extreme prejudice," the story spread virally across the globe, and she was out of a job within hours.

Ten, 20 years from now she may sincerely regret what she did and have worked untold hours to atone for it. But her name, her smiling face next to an impaled cat's corpse and her idiotically gleeful words are now permanent fodder on hundreds of Facebook pages, blogs, news and quasi-news sites.

She'll likely suffer for years for this — and all from one poorly thought through Facebook post.

These are the social media dynamics Unfriended explores, doing so no less than by presenting the entire situation unfolding via online media itself on a laptop screen.

Unfriended is also able to maintain the illusion of its chosen perspective better, and more consistently, than most of the first person horror flicks, where whoever carries the camera so obsessively and records every minor detail has to constantly give excuses for why he or she is doing so. Its one minor weakness is an occasional lull when Blaire does something on a site other than Skype and all of her friends just seem to magically lull into silence in the background.

Unfriended has a much simpler conceit — you can't shut it off because the invading entity has taken control of it, and if you leave, it will kill you.

Unfriended's trailer is an awkward and curious beast that leaves many who see it wondering if it's just another idiotic teen horror slasher filmed through the millennial's veneer of online technology. It is not. It's a smart exploration of how online social dynamics affect the real world, and vice versa, in an era when our ability to communicate is vastly outpacing our capacity to comprehend all the ramifications of our communication.

Naturally, director Leo Gabriadze is expressing interest in developing this into a franchise. How that would work, I have no clue. It would seem like this is the sort of concept that, once you pulled it off, just couldn't have the same impact a second time around without some pretty severe innovation.

But, regardless of future intentions, he and his cohorts have pulled off one hell of an achievement with Unfriended.