Film Review: ‘Unfriended’

Levan Gabriadze's clever yet exasperating horror-thriller unfolds entirely on one character's computer screen.

Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman.

(“Unfriended” was reviewed under its original title, “Cybernatural,” at the 2014 Fantasia Film Festival.)

A victim of cyberbullying gets her revenge on the teens responsible for her suicide in “Cybernatural,” a horror movie distinguished by the device that everything takes place on one character’s computer screen. That means the entire story unfolds via Google, Facebook, Skype and other portals that probably didn’t give their permission for their brands to be used, and could cause trouble for this low-budget stunt — which was the buzzy breakout of the genre-focused Fantasia fest — in reaching mainstream audiences. Innovating what could be considered Found Footage 2.0, director Levan Gabriadze got there first(ish), though others will surely improve upon the gimmick.

Simultaneously clever and exasperating, the film puts a novel spin on the genre Roger Ebert dubbed “the Dead Teenager Movie,” wherein frustratingly dim adolescents defy even the most obvious survival instincts, getting themselves eliminated in a series of creatively gory ways. Here, rather than shouting, “Don’t go up those stairs!” at the screen, audiences may find themselves screaming, “Don’t click that button!” as the characters make ill-informed decisions on their computers that lead to death by handgun, knife and blender.

Our vision is limited to whatever a character named Blaire (Shelley Hennig) sees on her Mac laptop. There’s a menu bar running across the top of the screen at all times as she shuffles back and forth between windows, navigating between her browser, her music library and an ongoing group video conference with the reduced attention span of an easily distracted teen. We see Blaire as her friends do, via Skype, in a crowded window where all six characters — and an anonymous lurker — split the screen.

The experience begins with Blaire (Shelley Hennig) watching an online snuff film, in which a disturbed young woman named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) takes out a handgun and shoots herself in the face. Blaire and her friends knew Laura, who was one of the popular kids at their high school, whereas they are the sort who were likely picked on by their peers — an intriguing reversal of the usual adolescent power structure. Someone recorded Laura’s gruesome suicide via cameraphone and uploaded to the Internet, where “the video that forced her to kill herself” also went viral.

Now, on the one-year anniversary of Laura’s death, the girl’s spirit wants to know who is behind these leaks, coming back to seek her (groan) “cybernatural” revenge online. (“Online” was screenwriter Nelson Greaves’ negligibly better working title.) Greaves’ script combines this tepid mystery, parsing out clues as to who was “responsible” for driving Laura to suicide, with a succession of brutal killings, as some unseen force manipulates the computer and forces Blaire’s friends to kill themselves while the others look on in horror.

During the film’s most intense moments, “Cybernatural” amplifies the effect of that infamous shot from “The Blair Witch Project,” the one where Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself, oozing snot and tears into the camera as she hyperventilates. Here, the characters all lean in to their respective webcams and freak out over something only they seem to understand — namely, what kind of malevolent force they’re dealing with.

Blaire’s best guess comes when she pulls up the Wikipedia entry for “demonic possession,” which features the film’s single scariest visual (a jolting image that doesn’t actually appear on Wikipedia) — a bit of a cheat, really, since Blaire keeps refreshing the creepy page, even though no one makes a convincing case for possession. Instead, they’re plagued by little glitches where their computers appear to have a will of their own (windows popping open at random or buttons refusing to comply), while the video streams degenerate whenever something scary occurs onscreen, so that it’s frustratingly difficult to make out what’s supposed to be happening  — all of which takes some nimble editing to sustain the unnerving effect that everything is unfolding in real time.

For the record, “Cybernatural” isn’t the first film to take place entirely within a computer screen. Two Ryerson film school students, Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, became the talk of Toronto last year with their clever short “Noah,” and this year’s Fantasia program also includes “Open Windows,” an ambitious Spanish chiller that features Elijah Wood at the mercy of a cybervillain. But the device still feels fresh, for the moment at least, though it’s sure to become as tired and overused as the original found-footage genre. Here, it comes with the added frustration that audiences are stuck inside the heads of shallow, social media-obsessed teens — typo-prone numbskulls who take to Chatroulette when they should really be calling 911.

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Film Review: 'Unfriended'

Reviewed at Fantasia Film Festival, Montreal, July 26, 2014. Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: A Timur Bekmambetov presentation of a Bazelevs production. (International sales: Red Sea Media, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Bekmambetov, Nelson Greaves. Executive producers, Adam Sidman, Alan Khamoui.

Crew: Directed by Levan Gabriadze. Screenplay, Nelson Greaves. Parker Laramie. Camera (color), Adam Sidman; production designer, Heidi Koleto; art director, Brooks Fairley; costume designer, Veronika Belenikina; sound, Clint Allday; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Mike Moeding; visual effects, Russell Sadeghpour, Pavel Perepelkin; animations, the Blank Frame; line producer, Sidman; associate producers, Veronika Belenikina, Rick Sobalvarro, Kathy Switzer, Maria Zatulovskaya; casting, John McAlary.

With: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman.

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