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Unfriended has been a long time coming, or at least a film very much like it. Cinema has always been a reaction to the times, a reactionary sponge to headlines and trends, aping and converting what’s popular into stories for film. It’s all to entice audiences to open their wallets, and very often, it works. If David Fincher’s underrated Fight Club follow up Panic Room is the prodigal son to Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window in the digital age, where a divorced mother protects her daughter in an enclosed safety room where their primary defense is a thick steel box outfitted with a security camera feed, Unfriended is the completely digitized daughter in that family tree. History books will reflect on millennial culture through the lens of social media. Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Instagram profiles memorialize our lives on the web for now and for always. To borrow a line from The Social Network, the internet’s not written in pencil, it’s written in ink.
Nothing sensationalizes the mundane normalities of life like genre movies, so leave it to a horror film to twist social media into a villainous presence. Unfriended is the “skype horror movie,” a film that takes place entirely from the screen of a computer. Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) is as close as we’ve got to a protagonist, and it’s her screen we watch. We never leave the desktop of a Mac OS X operating system. A group of friends are in joint video call with an anonymous additional user, who’s video isn’t streaming. Over time we realize it might be linked to their friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) who had tragically committed suicide the year before. A cripplingly embarrassing video of Laura was released online, and it takes three or four tries of Blaire starting and stopping the video until we finally see it in its sad totality. Laura’s suicide, too, we recorded and leaked online, cartoonishly but effectively emphasizing the creepy online permanence of life in the Facebook age. Slowly they realize the anonymous user might be a hacker or possibly even a ghost of Laura, one who apparently has a fetish for horror.
Weirder and weirder things unfold, each subsequently harder to rationalize without turning to the paranormal. The group of friends, including Blaire’s boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), hacker-stoner Ken Smith (Jacob Wysocki), and hunk Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), try to problem solve their ways from the anonymous accounts threats. I won’t say who, but one of these characters’ heads ends up being torn apart by a blender as the skype camera feed cuts in and out. The hacker and/or ghost is a vengeful spirit, on a mission to out those responsible for leaking the embarrassing video that pushed Laura to end her own life. For no real reason other than director Levan Gabriadze to scare the audience, the camera feed flickers in and out during the gorey stuff.
None of that is particularly scary, and the shocks are so few I’d hardly register Unfriended as capable of elevating my heart-rate. I was decidedly not on the edge of my seat. I was never tempted to close my eyes. And I, most certainly, never jumped. As a straight-laced horror film, Gabriadze’s bold premise has little reward, so if that’s what you want move along, move along. But the fact a movie that’s nothing but a computer screen can work at all is impressive. Technically speaking Unfriended is an uninterrupted take, and as eye-catching as they are they also run the risk of being boring. Editing centralizes our focus and creates a rhythm for the viewer to fall into, fostering a symbiosis between film and film watcher. But Unfriended is not boring. It’s an effortless if not engrossing watch, and Gabriadze creatively stages where he wants viewers to look on the screen, such as specific video feeds or texting conversations. He might fix our eyes on a texting conversation between Blaire and Mitch just for a surprise shock to jolt you back on the right side of the screen. Unfriended is a gimmick movie, but it’s a clever one and it’s genuine fun to see somebody try something new.
Fresh and fun as that stuff is, it’s not what Unfriended has most going for it; the themes emboss a level quality the rest of the movie doesn’t really deserve. Rear Window personified innately voyeuristic essence of cinema as a film medium with Jimmy Stewart using a binoculars to spy on his neighbors. Panic Room takes it a step further, showing the digital age mimics the same unnerving quality of watching. Unfriended completes the thematic evolution of the idea, going as far as to show how we swapped a binoculars—an actual device designed to compress space—for something as immediate and even intimate as a computer screen. We have open access to everyone’s lives. Their relationships, their mistakes, and their secrets. What doesn’t work about the film is hardly the point. It eerily captures the uneasiness of our computerized times, and that’s vital to Unfriended working in ways beyond the tight B-genre it’s stuffed itself into. After all, “stalking someone’s profile” has become a commonplace phrase in the cultural lexicon.
It’s a unique and excitedly complex premise, one that’s exciting to watch unfold even if it’s through the terribly written characters. That, by the way, awkwardly reveal screenwriter and producer Nelson Greaves’ animosity for young people. Each of them has a horrible secret ready to be outted, riffing on every cliche in the high school yearbook of shitty people tropes. These are the types of kids that might make Carrie go crazy in Carrie. If Unfriended has a deliberate theme as far as that goes, it’s that every high school aged person is an unambiguously “lyke totally” “bro lets get drunk” asshole. The cast struggles to be watchable, unable to turn ugly people into anything remotely likable. But what the film says through sheer force of premise is of significance, and that, not the ghost-story B-movie antics or insulting characters, is what really needled its way under my skin.
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