Originally titled Cybernatural with a better looking poster when it received its initial showing at the 2014 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal and picked up by Universal for a wider release, Unfriended is a gimmick horror told in real time.
One evening, six teenage high-schoolers skype on their laptops from their individual bedrooms. Their after-school, late evening chat is generally mundane until they realize something odd is going on; there’s an extra, unidentified party on-line eavesdropping. “It’s that creeper Skype dude,” one of them states. With no identifying picture, none of the six can work out who that extra, uninvited guest could be.
At first they think it’s a mistake, one of those internet connection oddities, so they log out, then log back on. But the eavesdropper remains. Then one of the teenagers, Blaire Lily (Shelley Henning) receives a message. “If you hang up, all your friends will die.”
The message comes from a girl who used to be the most popular girl in school; Laura Barns. Aside from the ominous tone of the note, ordinarily there would be nothing remarkable about teenagers sending threatening troll-like messages to each other, except for one thing: because of some excessive bullying, plus a particular humiliating video that was previously posted on line for all to see, it was one year ago to the day that Laura Barns committed suicide. So, if she’s dead, the six teenagers try to reason, who’s the guy sending these nasty messages? The answer seems obvious: Someone must have hacked in to Laura Barns’ old account and was now using it to send threatening messages to the six teenagers who bullied her the most.
The gimmick to Unfriended is that everything that happens throughout its eighty-two minute running time is seen from the point of view of the window images on Blaire’s monitor; the whole film. We never cut away. It’s as if we’re the eavesdropper, peering over the teenager’s shoulder like an unseen parent checking in on what their child is doing and watching her navigate through program after program while she keeps a line of communication open with friends, all of whom increasingly panic with every new threatening message they receive.
A huge issue with the film, and one that older members of the audience might have trouble overcoming, is that none of the teenagers are likeable. They were the bullies who eventually drove the popular girl to shoot herself. No one else seems to like them, and by the way they talk, they don’t seem to be all that fond of each other, either. They’re the kids who write those nasty remarks in other people’s comment columns little realizing the damaging effect their words have on the recipient, and, even worse, even if they do realize, they’re unconcerned. Plus, one of them is responsible for a particularly nasty video of the deceased that when posted on You Tube went viral, the ultimate humiliation for any teenager. As each one is silenced in unlikely ways by the on-line ghostly presence and their on-line account is permanently closed there’s never any feeling of shock or empathy for their grizzly demise. All you’ll be thinking is, can we kill them off a little faster and get this over with?
The target audience for most films is the teenager. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Unfriended. Listening to these characters’ inane chatter, their constant, accusatory tone of their on-line conversations and the eventual, fever-pitch hysteria of youngsters using adult language but still sounding like kids may prove too much for anyone over thirty (and if it doesn’t, then you should seriously consider spending more time mixing with people your own age.) The notion of watching someone else’s computer screen for this length as Blaire’s curser jumps all over the place, bringing up window after window, logging in and out of programs faster than the speed of lightning is, frankly, perplexing. Though perhaps more perplexing is the thought that, like the found-footage, hand-held gimmick that began with The Blair Witch Project where three students went into the woods to make a film and forgot the tripod, the style will probably be copied by others until the genre has finally run its course.
As a fifteen minute short at a film festival, Unfriended might have seemed a somewhat fresh and creative way of telling a quickie event with a shock ending, but stretched to eighty-two minutes, the film is, at the very least, an hour too long.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 82 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)