Unfriended (United States, 2015)

April 16, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Unfriended Poster

The average horror movie is rarely blessed with a complex storyline.  Unfriended takes this plot simplicity to an extreme. Since the movie-going experience in this case is all about the gimmick, the narrative is almost nonexistent. In a strange way, Unfriended does what many European films do: put a bunch of characters together and have them do little more than talk for over an hour. Of course, in the electronic age, there's more to it than that.  The conversation takes place over video chat (none of the characters are ever physically co-located) and everyone is multi-tasking. Text chat windows are open next to the Skype screen. YouTube is omnipresent. Music is playing in the background. If nothing else, Unfriended does an excellent job portraying the frenzy that is on-line teen interaction. This is the new equivalent of "hanging out." It's not all the different from going to a mall except everyone is in their own home and it's easy to do other things without appearing to be offensive or dismissive.

Without the horror element, the film would exist exclusively as an anthropological examination of how a high school student spends his or her free time. But there's a ghost in the machine.  The spirit of Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman), a junior who committed suicide after being bullied and humiliated, has returned from the grave on the anniversary of her death to seek vengeance on those she views as being responsible. As luck would have it, all six of them - Blaire (Shelly Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Val (Courtney Halverson) - are online together, so she begins to cyberstalk them. She invades their chat, infects their computers, and possesses their bodies. Unfriended turns into a variation of the Final Destination formula, with characters being eliminated one-by-one in often gruesome ways. Only the poor quality of the video streams spares us from copious quantities of high-def blood and gore.

The aforementioned gimmick is that the entire movie, which unfolds in real time, provides an image of the laptop screen of one of the characters. We see the faces of the participants as they video chat. We read the text-based side interactions. We see YouTube videos (including one of Laura's suicide). Director Leo Gabriadze is careful to make sure nothing breaks into this tenuous cyber reality because he recognizes that the suspension of disbelief curve would be impossibly steep outside of it. Things that work in this context would seem contrived (and downright silly) in a more traditional format. So, although there are actors in Unfriended, the star of the movie is the approach. Paradoxically, it creates both a sense of immediacy (due in large part to the real time element) and distance. The latter is a problem because, although there's intensity to proceedings, there's no element of dread or terror. The experience is strangely sterile. We're a voyeur rather than a participant.

Since there's no interpersonal interaction among the characters, there's no sense of chemistry. They're all rather anonymous and, even as secrets from their pasts are revealed, they don't gain three-dimensionality. Laura's ghost is more of a plot device than a legitimate villain. In fact, if one takes a step back, it's possible to see her as an avenging angel rather than a demon. She was, after all, hounded and bullied into killing herself, egged on by hateful text messages and humiliated by a video. If the story was told from her perspective, she would be the hero.

The material is a little thin for even the short 80 minute running length. The approach starts to become tiresome around the one hour mark and, even though there's no shaky-cam, the limitations of the first-person perspective become obvious before the final act is over. There's variability to the acting that the style can't cover up. None of the cast members are immediately recognizable (which is a good thing since it enhances verisimilitude), although most have a large number of TV credits to their names. Some, like Shelly Hennig and Renee Olstead, are convincing. Others, like Will Peltz, are less impressive.

Unfriended is made for a specialty audience - fans of non-traditional horror movies. When it comes to selling the film to a wider viewership, its quasi-unique calling card becomes a negative. Gabriadze's inability to build dread and sustain fear is also a drawback. And, once it becomes apparent where things are headed, Unfriended enters the realm of anti-climax. I'll admit the film held my attention but I left the theater unsatisfied, which I think will be a common reaction among those not within the demographic niche for which the production was mounted.

Unfriended (United States, 2015)

Director: Leo Gabriadze
Cast: Jacob Wysocki, Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Heather Sossaman, Will Peltz, Renee OIstead, Courtney Halverson
Home Release Date: 2015-08-11
Screenplay: Nelson Greaves
Cinematography: Adam Sidman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2015-04-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1