‘Unfriended’: Beware the cybernatural!

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For Digital First Media

When you turn on your computer and go online, do you fear the risks? “Unfriended” is a film that will instill computer fears even in those who are altogether comfortable dealing with the virtual world.

The internet represents an amazing advance in human technology. However, like other developments, it is fraught with potential problems. So-called trolls lurk on the internet, poised to torment unsuspecting victims. What if a malevolent ghost used the internet to avenge itself? “Unfriended” explores the possibility of such a cyberhaunting.

You can forget about “The Blair Witch Project.” “Unfriended” redefines the subgenre of the found footage teen horror film. Instead of being haunted by sylvan ghosts, you are at mercy of virtual spirits inside of your computer.

As the film opens, high school senior, Blaire Lily (Shelly Hennig), is watching a video on her laptop. It provides the back story that propels “Unfriended.”

A year before, one of Blaire’s classmates, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), was involved in an embarrassing incident. At a student party, Laura had passed out in a drunken stupor. While inebriated, she has soiled herself. The whole experience had been captured on video and posted online.

Laura, who had been somewhat of a cyberbully, was hoist by her own petard. She became the victim of widespread, online harassment. Laura couldn’t handle the public humiliation and eventually committed suicide. This is the one year anniversary of her demise.

After finishing the video, Blaire skypes her boyfriend, Mitch Roussel (Moses Jacob Storm). She titillates him with provocative flirtation, replete with a modified strip tease.

Three of the couple’s classmates, Ken Smith (Jacob Wysocki), Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), and Jess Felton (Renee Oldstead), join the online session. The erotic, one-on-one interaction between Blair and Mitch is transmogrified into a group gab fest. The topic of Laura comes up. Although Blaire was once friends with her, the others express negative sentiments towards the decedent.

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Shelley Henning, left, and Moses Storm appear in a scene from "Unfriended." (Universal Pictures via AP)

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Shelley Henning, left, and Moses Storm appear in a scene from “Unfriended.” (Universal Pictures via AP)

As the quintet chats, an uninvited new party, “billie227,” pops up. The new arrival doesn’t have a microphone or a camera. Instead, they communicate through text in the Skype chatroom. Who is this interloper? Blaire traces the messages back to Laura’s facebook page. How can a dead person possibly be texting them?

The group suspects that one of their classmates, Val Rommell (Courtney Halverson), is pulling some sort of perverse computer prank on them. They speculate that she has somehow hacked into Laura’s account, then used it as a conduit to forward scary messages. However, when they contact Val, she vehemently professes her innocence.

Suddenly, more text messages begin showing up on screen. However, they aren’t from the people, who own the accounts. In a follow-up text message, someone claiming to be Laura claims that she is the cause of all the mayhem. She posts an archived Facebook chat. In it, Val had exhorted Laura to commit suicide.

As the film unfolds, we learn that Laura holds a grudge against each of her erstwhile classmates. Can a ghost use the internet to wreak revenge?

The panic-stricken teens try to eliminate the interloper from their Skye session. These efforts prove unavailing. The pull down option lacks the customary, “unfriend” command. There is just no escaping Laura’s spirit.

The premise of “Unfriended” is silly and far-fetched. It focuses on a bunch of vapid adolescents. Not a single cast member is the least bit  appealing. The film consists of conversational dynamics in which the characters incessantly interrupt one another in an annoying fashion. For all these reasons, you might reasonably expect “Unfriended” to be a tedious slog.

The concept for “Unfriended” was developed by its co-producer, Timur Bekmambetov. The Kazakhstani auteur is responsible for a pair of celebrated Russian language supernatural films, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (who knew?). He also helmed “Wanted,” a Hollywood film with a big name cast that included Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, James MacAvoy, and Common. His previous work includes sumptuous visuals; sprawling, high density narratives; and plenty of unexpected twists.

Bekmambetov’s prior work is a stark contrast with “Unfriended,” a visually spare, low budget flick, which unspools in real time, entirely on a laptop screen. The surprise here is that Bekmambetov’s brainchild ends up being oddly compelling.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Unfriended" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q72LWqCx3pc

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Unfriended” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q72LWqCx3pc

As written by Nelson Greaves (in his first feature screenplay) and directed by Russian Georgian, Levan Gabriadze (in his first English language film), “Unfriended” captures how easy it is to succumb to the lure of becoming a chatroom addict. The cast members are largely unknown, rather than readily recognizable actors. This serves to infuse the film with a sense of realism.

Under the working title, “Cybernatural,” this low-budget film was originally slated to be MTV fodder. A savvily edited teaser trailer generated some positive buzz among the film’s target demographic. Subsequently subscribers to Kik Messenger were invited to chat with Laura’s putative ghost. After receiving pre-programmed responses, participants were driven to a dedicated microsite. When the flick debuted at the Fantasia Film Festival, then appeared at SXSW, it built further enthusiasm. A clever marketing campaign rescued the film from a non-theatrical fate.

Even for those who eschew the notion of ghosts and disdain films about them, “Unfriended” may serve as a cautionary tale. Once something is posted online, it may attain a life of its own. This may trigger a cascade of consequences that could never have been anticipated.

“Unfriended” is the progenitor of this new genre, the cyberhorror film. It is suitably haunting for a generation, who has been weaned on the internet.

*** R (for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens) 82 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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