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Review: Unfriended

13 min read
Shelley Hennig stars in Universal Pictures' "Unfriended"

Do u like scary movies? Lol. Coz OMFG! This 1 is about ppl dying on Skype. Srsly! Like, WTF?!?! #Yolo

Okay, sorry, enough of that, I just hate what my generation has done to the English language. Given that every single one of the intentionally dimwitted, soon-to-be-dead teenagers in the new cyber-horror film, Unfriended, texts through this mindless gobbledygook slang, as most people do via instant messaging, I assume that both writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze feel the same way. And to be honest, that’s one thing I found to be surprisingly refreshing about this film: It features some darkly satirical condemnations towards millennials, and how their self esteem strives on creating a glamourized representation of themselves through social media. If only it were the least bit frightening.

The film ‘takes place’ entirely through the laptop screen of Blaire (Shelley Henig), an airheaded high school student who joins a group video chat session on Skype, consisting of an assortment of her shallow, adolescent friends. Inexplicably, though, someone who nobody invited keeps appearing in their feed, with no picture or visible profile. Despite the kids’ various, futile efforts to block this person out of their viral conversation, the stranger not only sticks around, but claims to be Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a girl who recently committed suicide following a vicious act of cyberbullying. Stating that Blaire and her mean-spirited buddies are responsible for her tragic fate, Laura appears to be hacking into their accounts from beyond the grave, challenging them to a series of ‘games,’ but threatens that anyone who signs off during them will die. And that’s when the body count starts to rise.

As far as this whole ‘found-footage’ setup within the horror genre goes, I’ve gotten pretty tired of it. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was something of a revelation during the time of its release; an ingeniously minimalist experiment that proved how ambiguous sounds and grainy images from a first-person perspective could trigger our imaginations into conjuring up something far more frightening that’s happening off-screen. Paranormal Activity was another big smash in 2007, which, despite launching a rather lackluster franchise, was an effectively creepy little flick that helped shift the genre out of its ‘torture porn’ phase (thankfully) and veer into cheaper, but more psychological, territory.

Now, however, not only has this gimmick become awfully stale with the more recent array of horror films, it’s become offensively lazy. Merely shaking a camera around while multiple people are screaming doesn’t generate any legitimate feelings of terror, just extreme nausea and irritation. Not to mention, most of these new entries forget what made most of the best examples of this type of film work work: They established feelings of dread through patient, unnervingly quiet set pieces, not by spastically shoving the viewer into splatters of CGI gore.

Much to my surprise, Unfriended plays off both the best and worst tropes within this subgenre. It takes its time building to the inevitable bloodshed, and, for the first half-hour or so, it builds a decent amount of tension through cleverly staged sequences of Blaire maneuvering through applications such as Skype, Spotify, Google Chrome, Messenger and YouTube. Yeah, I know, watching someone browse through a series of programs on their desktop doesn’t sound very cinematic, and it’s far from the most exciting concept, but Gabriadze juggles everything around in inventively busy techniques, defying the expectations of what could have been a static visual palette. For a brief time, at least, watching rainbow wheels and loading screens has never seemed more sinister.

Then, people start dying, but these characters are such shrill, insufferable dum dums that I ended up feeling far more relieved than terrified when one of them was killed off. Obviously, these twerps are designed to be spoiled snots, but sometimes horror films are most effective when they sneak up on you and make you feel sympathy for the most undeserving victims. Take Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) for example, when, throughout the entire film, you want nothing else but for the bullies to get their kummupins for the way they torment Sissy Spacek’s title character. Then, when she finally wreaks bloody havoc on them at prom night, the gruesome violence is tragic, because even the antagonists are developed as authentic human beings. Regardless of their reprehensible behavior, they don’t deserve to be slaughtered in such horrific fashions, and De Palma makes us feel sickened by our disturbing desires.

I assume that Gabriadze and Greaves are aiming for a similar aspect with Unfriended, especially since the film also deals with a misfit teen seeking revenge. However, not only is it difficult to develop like three-dimensional characters through this particular gimmick, it’s hard to make them seem the slightest bit redeemable when all they do is scream at one another. Certain scenes such as a deadly round of ‘Never Have I Ever,’ orchestrated by Laura, aim to give these cardboard caricatures hidden layers, but it plays off as little more than these unpleasant people shouting incomprehensibly over one another once a clichéd secret is revealed. If you’re rooting for a timer to count down faster so someone in the ensemble can just shut up and die, that’s a big problem in a horror film.

The best segments of the picture revolve around mocking these cold-blooded stereotypes and the filth that exists on the internet, such as when Blaire resorts to Chatroulette to report an emergency, only to encounter several perverts whose profiles include statements along the lines of, “tittieeeeeeeeeeeeees!” It’s satirical moments such as this, when the film exposes the sleaziness of certain cybernetic connections, which feel hilariously accurate; too bad that the friendships between the various ‘protagonists’ are handled in a penetrating fashion that isn’t nearly as sadistically funny. In addition to that, each kill plays out exactly the same: Someone logs off, their screen freezes, and then they sign back in the midst of a gruesome and pixelated suicide, usually accompanied by a loud screeching noise to heighten a cheap jump scare.

Unfriended is better than it has any right to be, especially considering the low bar set by so many other mainstream horror films as of late, such as Annabelle and Ouija. Yet, even despite occasional bursts of twisted humor, it still has a monotonous, by-the-numbers feel of so many other bland slasher films, and lacks any genuine insight in regards to the issues of cyberbullying, which remains prevalent as ever during this day and age. It’s not the worst way to spend 83-minutes, but there are far more captivating stories on the internet that will frighten you to death. In fact, news outlets report them every day, and you can find a variety of them right now without even having to pay $11.00! 

Or, just log on to Facebook; I’m sure one of your friends has posted some article that will give you more goosebumps than this film, as divertingly stupid as it is. Oh, wait…

Rating: R

Director: Levan Gabrdiadze

Shelley Hennig
Moses Jacob Storm
Renee Olstead
Will Peltz
Jacob Wysocki
Courtney Halverson
Heather Sossaman

Film Length: 83 minutes

Release Date: April 17, 2015

Distributor: Universal Pictures

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