Unfriended (2014)

Directed by Levan Gabriadze

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Unfriended is a horror movie in real time as seen through the perspective of a computer screen.  That it works as effectively as it does is a testament to the significance of our online lives.

Or maybe you thought it was silly, but sh*t I was hooked.  The computer screen, reflective of technology from 2013, was straight from my own nostalgia.  I remember vividly the skype and facebook message alerts which I haven’t heard in a few years now.  The video even lags in certain situations, and the movie never over-glamorizes the quality of the video chats.  When you’re talking to a friend you see them illuminated by the splotchy glow of their own computer screen, often with unflattering angles.

So before you get to the demon spirit which haunts them, Unfriended feels authentic.  The story is told with an impressive choreography which makes me wonder how they captured so many overlapping performances seemingly at the same time.

I guess maybe I’m hooked on the technology of Unfriended more than the story.  The characters here are vain and familiar to the horror genre.  They are self-indulgent, aggressive, scared and really not that fun to hang around.  As we expect, they will slowly be killed off, and there is little emotion in any of these deaths.  The characters are petulant and hallow, and their deaths are standard plot points.

We open on a live leak video, which if you’re familiar with the website, is already a bad sign.  We’re living through the computer screen of a girl named Blaire Lilly (Shelley Hennig).  She’s a high school student who watches the NSFW video showing the suicide of someone named Laura Burns.  Next she watches the linked video which supposedly drove Laura to suicide.

Before we meet Blaire or anyone else, we sense a looming darkness that sometimes feels like it’s on the periphery of all internet activity.  Soon she will open up a video chat with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Storm) which gives way to a group call with a handful of other subtly sullen teenagers.  They are joined as well by a silent, anonymous avatar, and we are given reason to believe this is the spirit of the deceased, Laura Burns.

Laura will haunt them, much as ghosts do in horror movies.  First the shock has only to do with her appearance.  It’s creepy and mysterious, and that’s enough to hook the audience in, or at least myself.  Once we grow used to that, the ghost must start doing things so we know it’s a threat.  In this case it punishes people who leave the call, killing them in various ways.

The ghost picks on the characters first by hacking into their internet activity, namely their Facebook, and threatening their online lives.  I suppose this is the commentary the movie provides, about how sacred we hold our social profiles and how certain alterations affect the way we see people and ourselves in real life.  People of a certain age are intrinsically tied to their avatars.

But of course, the ghost is an actual spirit and goes far beyond that.  It uses facebook as a way to turn people on each other, and you get it.  This is a blend of every horror movie you’ve ever seen.  Picking movies out of a hat it’s like Devil (2010) or John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Unfriended is loaded with horror tropes, including the characters themselves.  At first you may think they are innocent, albeit annoying, characters, but movies like this tend to justify the characters’ gory punishments.  In the end we learn each of the teenagers played some hand in what drove Laura to suicide, whether because they bullied her or were merely complicit in the bullying that had already gotten started.

A lot of humanity is lost in the internet.  This is an extreme version, commenting on the stories we hear about cyber-bulling and whatnot, but even in a less extreme way there is something frightening to the way we communicate online.  Maybe just from a psychological standpoint, but the internet is a huge filter between people, and it’s hard to separate another person from the other non-conscious things we see online.  When reduced to a screen name and maybe a single photo, people become objects, like something to buy from a catalogue.  We are all commodities in a certain way, and our value and worth might begin to overlap in an unhealthy way, at least in the ways we see each other.

There are shades of grey too, but I think it’s hard to argue against there being severe dark sides to the internet, and Unfriended is about those dark sides.  Like some horror movies this is a familiar story with different wrapping paper.  It’s the teenagers who have sinned in some manner, and the evil is their reckoning.

The most fascinating part about this movie was that it was apparently filmed in a single take.  Cameras were set up on each actor, in a different room of the same house.  Each actor had a feed of the others, and this let them react in real time.  I’m guessing this simply recreated what the characters would actually be doing, only with additional microphones so they sound crystal clear.

It’s surely the only way to create a film like this without extensive editing, matting and compositing.  The computer screen might seem like a way to simplify our lens into this world, but there are so many moving parts, so many chat boxes and internet tabs that it makes the idea of editing a conventional movie seem like child’s play.

Up Next: Mom and Dad (2017), Man on the Moon (1999) /Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), Altered States (1980)

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