Unfriended (2014)

Director: Leo Gabriadze
Writer: Nelson Greaves
Cinematographer: Adam Sidman
Cast: Shelley Henning, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz.

The horror genre is a hard one to make a movie in these days, as so many of the tropes have been literally beaten to death that they simply don’t impress moviegoers, let alone scare them. And yet, as Unfriended shows us, there is still room for originality in the stale supernatural teen scream genre. A very low budget and simple film, this ditty uses a format that most viewers, Mac users at least, are very familiar with. Earlier this year an episode of the family sitcom Modern Family made an entire episode that takes place on the screen of one of the character’s laptop. Basically a twenty minute advertisement for Apple products, the episode still worked as it used FaceTime and Messenger to communicate with the various family members while the owner of the computer was stuck in an airport. This movie, which funnily enough came out around that same time but was completed and screened at various film festivals a full year earlier, does exactly the same thing, but with scares instead of laughs.

It really helps that the cast is made up of unknown actors, to me at least. A quick rundown of the main actors’ IMDB pages and perhaps they are slightly known to teenagers, as some are cast members of shows on MTV, the CW, and ABSFamily, but, with the exception of Renee Olstead (who I know as a rather gifted jazz singer and didn’t know that she was also an actor, but I didn’t know it was her until the credits rolled), I had never heard of any of them. It’s good, because it feels like the movie is unfolding in real life before your eyes and you actually believe that the young people are actually teenagers going through the horrors represented. An overly famous young face would be distracting and it would be too difficult to get lost in the story. Their anonymity is the biggest gift to the indie horror.

The story is extremely simple and as obvious as in any horror film: one the first anniversary of her suicide, the ghost of a teenage girl returns to exact revenge on those she blames for the events that led to her death and does so through the use of the language that teenagers today understand all too well: technology. The young girl in question was filmed at a party, during which she became intoxicated and ended up soiling herself. The video was uploaded to YouTube and public sharing and shaming took over, leading to an amount of cyberbullying that proved too much for the young girl to handle. The movie could take the easy road and make this young victim overly innocent and likable, but in an interesting twist the girl was a mean girl, a bully herself, complicating the story in an interesting and fresh way.

On the night of the anniversary, a group of friends conference each other on Skype and realize that there is an anonymous presence without a profile page or video who is along for the ride. Mild interest eventually turns to alarm as the presence is revealed to be the dead friend who begins taunting and threatening the remaining high schoolers. None are allowed to disconnect from their computer, for doing so means certain death. Blair, one of the friends, provides the computer through which the audience watches everything unfold. We see files, messages, Facebook profiles, and hear the music she streams. As people who live their lives attached to screens, it is oddly mesmerizing to feel as though we are the ones moving the action forward because we become Blair. These horrors are happening to us.

The plot may be predictable, and the ending can be seen from miles away but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the film. The medium itself is the focus. It would have been great had the movie had more to say about the issue of cyberbullying and teen suicide, but that would be expecting way too much out of what to amounts as to a quick tour de force of internet stalking at the hands of a ghost. The movie felt fresh, which is missing in horror movies, and was overall quite successful. Unfortunately, a sequel has already been greenlit, a mistake in my opinion, because the only reason this movie was any good was because it was new and hadn’t been done before. The same reasons that made The Blair Witch Project a success. It’s not that the movie is actually good, they never really are, it’s just that we hadn’t seen it before – once we have, we stop caring and we click on the little red ‘x’ in the corner and move on.

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