Starring Shelley Hennig, Renee Olmstead, Moses Jacob Storm
Directed by Levan Gabriadze
Just how you’re sometimes unsure what you want to say before you type it out and press “send,” Blumhouse’s Unfriended is still working out last minute tweaks of their film, deciding what they want to put out into the world before the final edit. That said, the version shown at SXSW should be very close to what you wind up seeing in theaters (not your computer screen!) when it downloads nationwide on April 17.
The concept of an entire horror movie taking place online has the appearance of being a daring concept, and admittedly, it is a hard sell to convince people to leave their computer screens at home only to come to a theater to see a giant computer screen staring back at them instead of the pristine digital projection they’re accustomed to. It’s not a slam dunk for big box office, but the concept is not really that experimental anymore now that films like Paranormal Activity 4, V/H/S and Open Windows have come into the fray.
Depicted as a cyber-bully Brady Bunch, six friends – Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Val (Courtney Halverson), Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam (Will Peltz) – all jump on a Skype call to hang out and make plans for the weekend. During an impromptu sex chat with couple Blaire and Mitch, suspiciously, all four of the other friends calling are brought into the chat without Mitch and Blaire ever accepting the call. A blank avatar stares back at all of them as well, with the group eventually just thinking that it’s some kind of glitch instead of a pervy hacker. Then, suddenly, the memorial Facebook page of their larger-than-life friend Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman) becomes active again as someone starts to message Mitch and Blaire, effectively freaking them out. The entity begins to play games with all of the friends, revealing secrets that lead them to turn on each other or, even worse, themselves.
Because the viewer is only seeing within the laptop’s camera range, there are some effective moments where it’s not clear if Blaire is really typing all the time to her boyfriend and vice versa. How manipulative is this mysterious ghost in the machine and just how many strings is it really pulling? The question as to whether or not someone is just messing with them is answered further on into the film after a lengthy setup before the teens are taken out one by one, going out in ways that mock their own personalities and weaknesses.
All of Unfriended is mostly done in one take with all of the actors alone in different rooms as the cameras record their performance. This feat is somewhat wasted because of a plethora of buffering and pixel effects that try to add suspense but instead take away from the build-up that could have reached a fever pitch if the one-take aspect was highlighted even further. In this day and age, this kind of bad connection is almost a thing in the past and makes the breaking up of the images even more frustrating.
There is some effective suspense, however, created with indecisive typing that reveals the knee-jerk reaction text or message before it’s edited on the fly to cover up what Blaire is really thinking and feeling in certain scenes. The performances by all of the actors are also highlights, and they work well off each other, showing that they can react almost the same way as they would if they were actually in the same room. The energy is there, and their chemistry makes Unfriended a welcome intrusion instead of high-concept chore without any heart.
Unfriended is not so much an indictment of internet culture or the titans of social media as it is a comment on how we use the connectivity available to us and how not thinking about the effects of bullying could wind up coming back to haunt you. Or worse, possess you and force you to stick your hand in a blender.