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The internet has completely changed everything in our world. More than just providing us online shopping and quick research capabilities, it has altered the way we communicate with one another – both in terms of social media applications and general attitude. This is an incredibly important element in the new high-concept horror film Unfriended, which just premiered at SXSW, and while the movie isn’t by any means a game-changer for the genre, it does do a rather surprising job creating terror and scares from the most basic elements of the internet age.
Unfolding its entire story on the screen of a single computer monitor of a girl named Blaire (Shelly Hennig), the film finds it’s protagonist with a group of friends (Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Matthew Bohrerr, Jacob Wysocki) chatting on Skype on the anniversary of the death of one of their high school classmates – a girl named Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman) who killed herself after being shamed in a party video posted online. Things start to get weird, however, when the group realizes that that their conversation is being monitored, and things take another step into crazy town when the stranger suggests that she is Laura and that she is itching to take down those individuals that drove her to suicide.
It’s understandable that some might scoff at Unfriended’s aesthetic gimmick – with the idea of watching someone’s monitor for two hours sounding like a total bore – but the reason why the film is able to make it work is because of it’s unexpected realism where social interaction online is concerned. It’s not just about the instant messages being sent, but also the ones being written out and then deleted before ‘Send’ is clicked. With a computer in front of them, the characters act as we might act in a frantic state, performing Google searches in an attempt to just try and figure out what’s going on. The movie even messes with our own familiarity with all internet age material, and strangely makes us feel uneasy when the "Forward email" option is unavailable on Gmail or the "Unfriended" option in Facebook’s drop down menu is greyed-out. None of this may sound that interesting on its own, but it lends the film a certain atmosphere that winds up being quite effective once the movie begins to hedge into the more supernatural side of things.
More than just making the story more effective, however, Unfriended’s strangely realistic approach also does wonders for its visuals – and it’s pretty gnarly scares. The teens in the film aren’t exactly operating with the fastest internet speeds, and therefore regularly see their Skype video panes freeze up, get super pixilated, and shut down all together. When normally using the internet, these kinds of things are nightmarishly annoying to you and me, but credit is due to director Levan Gabriadze for actually using these glitches to his advantage and create a special kind of suspense that comes from waiting for the feed to fix itself. Admittedly, the film does overplay this hand a tad too much, with quality issues masking some of the horror a bit too much, but it works more often than it doesn’t.
Given our own familiarity with the online world, it’s always both annoying and eye-catching when Hollywood finds new ways to screw up depictions of it - and while Unfriended runs the risk of doing just that from square one, thanks to its special method of storytelling, ultimately it finds a way to succeed just by getting it right. The film surely has its issues – particularly in terms of establishing the rules of the supernatural and due to moments where it just takes itself a bit too seriously – but overall the film is a creative, engaging bit of storytelling.