Thursday, April 16, 2015
Though it's not quite the game-changer that "The Blair Witch Project" was, "Unfriended" is an innovative and bold twist on the horror genre. The entirety of it takes place through the computer screens of six teens communicating with each other via Skype, Facebook, IM, Google searches and so on.
They're being hounded by an Internet troll, who claims to be their friend Laura Barns -- which is impossible, because she killed herself a year ago after being harassed online. But this unknown entity, which calls itself "billie227," invades their video chat room, seemingly takes control of their computers, and threatens to start killing them one by one if they log off.
If you think this may not seem like enough narrative to sustain a feature film -- even one that barely crosses the 80-minute mark -- then you'd be dead wrong.
Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves cleverly layer in additional story elements as time goes on and the threat level increases, along with the body count. It borrows liberally from classic horror tropes -- such as the virginal "nice girl" as the main character -- while burrowing itself deeply into the instant-everything culture of today's teenagers.
Their computers, smartphones and ear buds are not just tools; they're biometric accessories they rely upon to augment and enhance their interaction with the world at large (even when they never leave their rooms).
The idea of the "ghost" haunting the characters translates easily to the anonymity of the Web, where people feel free to treat each other in a loathsome fashion because of the remove from their intended victims. The characters are represented through thumbnail video boxes transmitting from their webcams (which change in size and position to reflect who is currently the main focus).
Shelley Hennig is Blaire, the heroine. The movie opens with her flirting with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), doing a tame striptease and promising to consummate their relationship on prom night. Their friends join the video chat just in time to break it up ...along with a mysterious hanger-on.
Adam (Will Peltz) is the headstrong one of the bunch, quick with an insult and our prime suspect as the person who posted the embarrassing video of a drunken Laura that pushed her to commit suicide. Val (Courtney Halverson) is the rich snob whom the others just tolerate. Jess (Renee Olstead) is the party girl who's not as tough as she projects. Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is the tech nerd who we suspect helps the more popular kids with their homework.
If most of the cast members look like they're closer to 30 than high school algebra classes, that's because they are. Hollywood loves to make movies about teenagers, but pathologically shuns the real acne-and-awkwardness of those years. So actors in their mid- to late-twenties get the job. (Hennig is the most convincing of the bunch.)
Things go from there, with billie227 quickly offing one of the kids to prove its power, then forcing the rest to play a revolving game of "Never Did I Ever." They're forced to reveal the horrible things they've done online and to each other. It seems these seemingly normal upper-middle-class kids are capable of great cruelty and selfishness.
And that, perhaps, is the hidden subtext behind "Unfriended" -- the banality of inhumanity we all experience, or contribute to, whenever we log onto a computer or mobile device these days. We have seen the face of evil, and it is a reflection of ourselves that reverberates through a million virtual connections.