UnfriendedReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/21/15 11:45:27
I missed "Unfriended" when it played the Fantasia Festival under the name of "Cybernatural" last year, and was kind of taken aback by the amount of buzz it received and the fact that Universal, as opposed to one of the smaller specialty labels, picked it up for distribution. It is, after all, a horror movie taking place entirely on a computer screen. Surprise, surprise, the praise was merited, as the movie does everything better than one might expect, up to and including benefiting from the studio changing its name.The computer in question belongs to Blaire Lily (Shelley Henning), a high-school girl planning some seedy video chat with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) on a Wednesday night, although she first re-watches bits of a couple videos from a year earlier when her friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide. They wind up joining a call with three other friends - Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Adam (Will Peitz), and Jess (Renee Olstead) - but there seems to be someone else lurking on the call. They think it's Val (Courtney Halverson), but she jobs the call and says it's not - although having all six on the line seems to be what this mystery guest connected to Laura's accounts and seemingly immune to all attempts to kick her out has been waiting for.
Unfriended is not the first film to present itself as this sort of real-time video chat - I saw one about ten years ago, and there are probably examples from as far back as broadcasting video was happening. The difference is that it comes at a time when this is a regular part of the culture, and the filmmakers seem comfortable with that in a way few of their forebears have. There are few gimmicky attempts to escape from the limitations on perspective that a laptop's webcam has, and both director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves are in a unique position to actually portray how people actually use the Internet rather than try to find ways to make this something that appears dynamic from a third-person view.
Committing to this method of storytelling lets Gabriadze and his colleagues tell a surprisingly streamlined and suspenseful story. The "getting to know you" phase doubles as the audience learning to watch a movie this way, and the relatively little information that we need to understand what may be going on its brought up with barely a pause. The escalation of scares once the viewer is up to speed is pretty darn impeccable, starting with familiar nuisances that grow creepier and more mysterious as they go along, eventually putting some violent jump scares at the end of ticking clicks. The best ingredient may be the steadily growing hostility - a typical slasher film may have the audience growing somewhat numb by the end, interested in how bloody and elaborate the kills will become, but Unfriended feels like it has tapped into an overflowing river of rage, and it's why I like the name change - rather than the running and hiding that most horror movies offer as they race toward their finals, this one gives the audience a violent rending of friendships.
The young cast doesn't over-sell those relationships - Greaves has no trouble making this a fairly loose-knit group - but they do manage a fine job of giving the group distinct personalities even though there's no point where they declare themselves. The standout is Shelley Henning; we know by dint of Blaire's name being in the corner of the screen that she is quite literally the point-of-view character, but she also gets the biggest emotional roller coaster, and Henning is both good enough to bring us along but to create an impression that liners when we're just watching her hesitant typing appear on-screen. Will Peitz and Courtney Halverson h have the next-most flashy roles, but the whole ensemble does quite well for mostly just being heads and shoulders in boxes one-sixteenth the size of the screen.
That construction is kind of fascinating, by the way - Gabriadze, editors Parker Laramie & Andrew Wesman, and the team creating Blaire's desktop screen create such a seamless impression of the whole thing being done in one continuous real-time take that how carefully it's assembled can easily else the audience: Every time a window assumes the foreground or is pushed away is both something that keeps the movie from looking painfully static in a theater but is also a hidden cut. The dynamic rearrangement of windows within the Skype app keeps the audience's focus where it needs to be without m making a big deal of it, and I'm kind of curious as to whether the actors were truly interacting with each other with Gabriadze supervising the whole cast from a sort of command center or whether this was done like voice-acting work, with everyone doing their part in sequence.I suppose I could look it up rather than wait to see special features on the home video release, but it really doesn't matter. The whole film comes together in a way that is thrilling and different without seeming gimmicky. It makes me wish I'd been among the early adopters when I had the chance, although I'm mainly just glad that they were right.
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