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New Release Review - UNFRIENDED

Six friends are targeted during a skype call by the vengeful spirit of a girl who committed suicide one year prior.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Levan Gabriadze

Starring: Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson, Shelley Hennig




"At a brisk 80 minutes, director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves milk their intriguing premise with mostly satisfying results, finding clever ways to create tension and suspense from what initially seems like a highly limiting concept."



As the found footage genre breathes its last gasp, a curious new offspring seems to be developing. It's a sub-genre that doesn't yet have a snappy label, so let's call it desktop horror for now. We saw this last year in Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows, which gave us Elijah Wood as a hapless victim manipulated by a psychopathic hacker. That movie played out almost entirely on the screen of Wood's laptop, but Vigalondo's camera zoomed in at convenient moments to focus our attention, breaking the real time conceit.
With Unfriended (which went into production under the much cheesier title Cybernatural), Georgian director Levan Gabriadze commits himself to the desktop based premise; his camera never moves, simply observing his leading lady's laptop screen for the entirety of the film. That leading lady is Shelley Hennig, who plays Blaire (a not too subtle nod to the film's found footage lineage), a teenager spending some down time with her Macbook. When we first see Blaire, or rather her desktop, she's watching a LiveLeak video of the suicide of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a schoolmate of hers who took her life after a humiliating video was posted on YouTube (product placement is rife here, but in this case entirely necessary; nothing takes you out of a movie like fake websites). Blaire is joined by five of her friends, including boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), for a skype chat, but they're not alone - there's a mysterious seventh participant in the call who initially refuses to identify themselves. When Blaire receives disturbing messages from the Facebook account of Laura Barns, it becomes apparent someone, or something has it in for this group of friends.
At a brisk 80 minutes, Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves milk their intriguing premise with mostly satisfying results, finding clever ways to create tension and suspense from what initially seems like a highly limiting concept. Sticking rigidly to a single static shot of a laptop screen means fake jump scares are thankfully absent, though the sudden distinctive sound of a Skype notification may have you jumping out of your seat a couple of times. In Gabriadze's hands, download progress bars serve as tense countdowns to the unknown terrors awaiting in unopened files; what seems like a simple case of a frozen chat window is chillingly revealed to be something far more sinister; and Blaire's considered choice of words in text messages, with liberal backspacing, gives us an insight into her state of mind. There's even a clever twist on the opening Universal logo that had some of the critics at my screening groaning at the prospect of a corrupted digital file and a cancelled press screening.
From the offset, it's clear the protagonists of this spam in a cyber can thriller aren't the most likeable bunch, and are far from innocent victims. It's a storytelling copout, one all too familiar in modern horror - it's a lot easier to write unlikeable characters than their empathetic cousins - but the last user logged on lives concept means we can at least enjoy the manipulations of these characters by the antagonist, who pits them against each other through revealing the secrets that dwell on their hard drives.
At time of writing, Unfriended has made its budget back no less than 25 times over, so I think it's safe to say we'll be seeing further variations on this theme. It's difficult to imagination what direction this premise could take from here, so expect a few turkeys to follow in this movie's wake. Before the cash-in hacks spoil its charms, check out Unfriended; to use the vernacular of Facebook, you're bound to 'like' it!



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