'Unfriended' is a spooky ghost story parable that will (only) be fun for those who grew up in the era of the online social jungle.
In Unfriended, a young teenage girl named Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman) commits a violent and public suicide, after an embarrassing video posted online turned her into a social pariah. Sometime after that, Laura's "old friends" like good-girl Blaire (Shelley Hennig), hot-head rich kid Adam (Will Peltz), airhead Jess (Renee Olstead), mean girl Val (Courtney Halverson), tech-geek Ken (Jacob Mysocki) and nice-guy Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) all gather for their nightly Skype social circling. Only on this particular night, they find a mysterious digital intruder in their midst.
Touting itself as the ghost of Laura Barnes, the digital "troll" soon begins to exert terrifying supernatural powers over the kids, via their cyber connection. The ghost in the machine has sadistic games in mind to play, in order to rip old secrets out of the clique, and make them feel the pain, shame (and maybe death) that Laura Barnes suffered.
As an experiment, Unfriended (originally screened on the 2014 festival circuit as Cybernatural) is fairly successful in telling a new age ghost story for the cyber-social generation. However, that small win is weighted down by the fact that as a piece of cinema, the film is static and somewhat dull, and as a horror film, it invests a lot of time and effort in slow buildups to some jarringly gruesome deaths.
Newcomer director Levan Gabriadze manages to do an admirable job creating the movie's unique stylistic design (a POV mimicking Blaire's laptop screen), and capturing the atmosphere of modern teen social life via digital media. Granted, the film barely holds together given how static the concept proves to be; after all, movies are moving pictures, and the constricted spaces of web cams and computer screens (even in multitude) proves contrary to that fundamental principal. Still, Gabriadze and his actors manage to milk a few clever scares out of the format - but for every good fright, there are about a dozen eye roll-worthy computer effects to endure (Skype glitches, changing windows, log ins/offs, starting/stopping the iTunes musical "soundtrack"). It's a necessary part of the premise, fine, but it nonetheless plays as a pretty thin gimmick, which wears out its welcome by the end.
Tonally, the movie is totally at odds with itself. On the one hand, it's an 80-minute advertisement for Apple, Skype, Facebook and the dozen other programs/apps that now rule youth culture. However, that unabashed advertising is spliced together with frightening scenarios and death scenes that are shockingly gruesome and/or hauntingly disturbing — in a day and age where the internet's ability to spread invasions of privacy, violent deaths, cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying like plagues, is an issue with major societal resonance. Perhaps like the digital realm itself, Unfriended is a constant bombardment of sex, violence, voyeurism and consumerism (in a word: consumption), but it's hard to credit that feeling to the intention of the filmmaker, so much as an accidental byproduct of his choices.
Sleepy Hollow TV series writer Nelson Greaves does an admirable enough job crafting a modern ghost story that actually does what good horror is supposed to: serve as a metaphoric parable about life, morality and/or relationships. For all its hokeyness, Unfriended is the sort of 'campfire ghost story' that could endure for a long time.
Like The Ring's timely threat of binge-watch annihilation during the early 2000s, after this film, modern kids will get a definite spook from seeing any unknown avatars suddenly popping up in their skype or chat sessions. By the end of the film, there's even nice payoff to most of what passes as "character arcs," with somewhat insightful subtext about the consequences of casually cruel online practices, and the need for greater awareness and compassion about digital interaction. In short: Greaves milks a fair amount of clever narrative out of his constricted premise.
The cast of young actors are all good enough to hold the tight space of a web cam and banter with one another for 70-plus minutes, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Unfortunately, the stock horror movie characters they embody won't endear them to most viewers, and make it hard to find a relatable person in the story to rally behind.
Shelley Hennig (Teen Wolf), Will Peltz (In Time) and Moses Jacob Storm get the primary character arcs to play - and each is suitably charismatic in his/her own right. But again, their respective characters (what little we get in brushstrokes of digital text or half-improvised banter) are flat and stereotypical to the genre, while supporting actors like Courtney Halverson (True Detective), Renee Olstead (Secret Life of an American Teenager) and Jacob Wysocki (Terri) get even less substance, if that were even possible. Poor Heather Sossaman (Days of Our Lives) gets just three scenes: one is gross, one is disturbing and is obnoxious. But I guess it's a paycheck?
In the end, Unfriended is a spooky ghost story parable that will (only) be fun for those who grew up in the era of the online social jungle. For "old timers," it will be hard enough to understand the social politics, acronyms and lifestyle the movie encapsulates - while for hardcore horror fans, the film's stylistic
gimmick format will prove too dry to deliver more than one or two good scares.
Unfriended is now in theaters. It is 82 minutes long and is Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use - all involving teens.
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