Directed by Levan Gabriadze. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov, Jason Blum, and Nelson Greaves. Written by Nelson Greaves. Release date: April 17, 2015.
“How do you make an effective slasher movie that takes place almost entirely over Skype?” This is a question that the cynical part of me asked for weeks leading into Unfriended, which does exactly that, including the “effective” part. Somehow, some way, the filmmakers behind this movie have managed to craft an intelligent horror movie with more to say about teenagers living in the digital age than most of its contemporaries have to say at all – and it does so in addition to being genuinely scary. Yes, it also takes place almost entirely in Skype, or at least with Skype being open. Google Chrome, iMessage, and maybe one or two other programs are also used. This is a gimmick to which it commits wholeheartedly, and it makes it work in part because of this commitment.
The premise is this: On the anniversary of a classmate’s suicide, a group of teenagers find themselves haunted over Skype by someone – or something – pretending to be the deceased. Or, maybe there’s no pretending involved. Perhaps the “thing” actually is the dead girl, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). She had a humiliating video posted online, complete with the caption “kill yourself,” and eventually she did just that. It’s not initially clear what it wants, and it actually remains quiet for about half the film, but soon enough we learn that it’s here for revenge, and the teenagers in the chat all had something to do with Laura’s death. It has control of all of their electronics, it knows everything that goes on either on their screen or through the microphone, and it can drive people to commit unspeakable acts. Now, that’s a new take on horror movies.
As the film plays out, we learn what each of these people did – not just to Laura, but to each other, too. Characters get fleshed out, past betrayals are unveiled, and the threat of whatever has weaseled its way into their Skype call is made clearer with each death. The first one was maybe an accident, they suspect – the girl had a history of seizures, anyway. We soon learn that is not the case, and that they’re in deep trouble.
So, yes, we’re talking about the consequences of cyberbullying, here demonstrated not just through Laura’s suicide – a video of which actually opens Unfriended, just to get the audience in the right frame of mind – but through the turmoil our primary cast is put through over the period of time the film plays. Unfriended has a point and there are no lengths to which it will not go to prove it. For gore junkies, there’s at least one scene that’ll excite you. Maybe two. It handles jump startles oddly, too, primarily by having them come up after Skype’s connection gets lost and has to reload. One moment, a character will be okay, and then after loading screen, they’re decidedly not. It’s more shock imagery than anything, but at least the typical jump startle technique is avoided. That’s certainly something to appreciate. The feeling of anticipation is here, the sense atmosphere is strong, and then you also get graphic, violent images shot at you.
Unfriended brings us an energetic and scary teen slasher movie that’s over in what feels like the blink of an eye.
Another thing to appreciate is the film’s sense of humor. Even in its darkest moments – and it gets dark – there are still some funny lines and situations. Surprisingly, this doesn’t ruin the film’s ability to make you anticipate its next reveal or murder. That takes a lot of skill to pull off, but director Levan Gabriadze pulls it off without much trouble.
Part of the reason Unfriended is so successful is that this is a movie that “gets” teenagers – both in mannerisms and in the way they talk – and as a result feels authentic. It also helps that real programs and a real operating system were used; there’s nothing fake that was made up for the film. The teenagers also aren’t stupid like they often are in these sorts of movies. They try seemingly everything to get out of this situation, although it becomes clear to us before them that there’s nothing they’ll be able to do. Cyberbullying is an irredeemable crime.
You’re not likely to recognize many of the actors; you’ll be lucky if you recognize one of them. The lead – if only because the film happens from her computer screen – is Blaire (Shelley Hennig). Her boyfriend is Mitch (Moses Storm), and they’re friends with Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Val (Courtney Halverson). Recognize any names? Honestly, I didn’t, but that didn’t stop me from being impressed. The acting is solid from start to finish from all the participants, even though they don’t ever get to directly interact with one another. That must’ve been an interesting filming process.
In a 30-day period, we have been given two solid wide-release horror movies. That almost never happens nowadays. It’s something for which we should be very thankful. It Follows was a creepy slow-burn of a horror movie, while Unfriended brings us an energetic and scary teen slasher movie that’s over in what feels like the blink of an eye. Both are worth seeing, especially if you’re a horror fan who (understandably) feels like we never get good wide-release horror. The filmmakers did something here that I didn’t think was possible: They crafted a good slasher movie that takes place almost exclusively over Skype.
Bottom Line: A strong teen slasher that’s fun from start to finish, Unfriended is a horror movie with something on its mind, a gimmick that works – at least for this one film – and a strong cast.
Recommendation: Horror movie fans need to see Unfriended right away. Even those who aren’t the biggest fans of the genre will appreciate its intelligence, humor, and lack of jump startles.[rating=4]