At first glance Unfriended should be a piece of crap. It’s a gimmicky title with a premise that rings immediate alarm bells — a group of teenage friends start up a group video chat on Skype when they are joined by an uninvited person claiming to be their dead friend, a girl who committed suicide after an embarrassing video of her went viral.
Even more gimmicky, or so it seems, is that the entire film is played out on a computer screen, so it feels like you are watching it unfold online as part of some voyeuristic experience. And when I say the entire film I mean every single shot from start to finish. Perhaps it’s meant to be watched on a laptop for maximum effect.
Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t judge Unfriended before I got to see it. The film is not without flaws and isn’t a great horror film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s actually much better than I had anticipated.
Part of the reason is that the plot is infused multiple twists and turns and a solid dose of intelligent ideas to keep audiences interested, despite having only a single computer screen to stare at for 83 minutes. To achieve this, director Levan Gabriadze utilises a combination of Skype, group and personal chats, YouTube videos, Facebook pages and web pages.
Though you only get to see the screen of one character, it’s a busy screen that jumps from window to window as she and her friends work together — and often against each other — to figure out who the mysterious intruder is. As it is a group video chat, you get to see what is happening with all the others as well, and the performances from the cast of unknowns is good enough to be believable, even though most of the time all you see is their facial expression.
The characters are difficult to develop in this type of setting and as such the film struggles to avoid stereotypes and horror film cliched. But what it does well is create a sense of growing tension and paranoia between the characters as they start suspecting each other of being the perpetrator behind this seemingly cruel prank.
Everyone has a secret to hide, and the intruder makes the most of this knowledge to play them against each other. And when people predictably start dying, the stakes are raised to another level. This whole time the mystery of just who the intruder is and why he/she/it is doing this remains brewing in the background and compels us to keep watching.
There were also some nice attention-to-detail touches, such as spotty Internet connections and shitty Skype video quality. I think it does a solid job of helping audiences forget the biggest flaw of the premise, that is, the characters can escape this nightmare simply by leaving the chat or turning off their computers. The message is, I suppose, that young people today simply can’t leave their technology alone. They are addicted to it and can’t fathom turning away even when their lives depend on it.
It’s a bold new evolution of the “found footage” genre that we haven’t seen before, and for the most part the filmmakers thought it through deeply enough for the risk to pay off.
That said, a horror film of this kind is of course very limited and what it can achieve. For all the tricks the filmmakers employ to sustain the interest of the audience, there’s still an unavoidable feel of repetition because there’s only so much a computer can do. There’s a lot of reading to do because of the various chats, which is not a problem for younger generations but could be a headache for the less tech savvy. Characters have to overreact — often annoyingly so — just to get he message across because we can only see a tiny picture of their faces on screen.
It’s absolutely a film that can polarise viewers as there are many flaws that can be characterised as “deal breakers” for some. If you can do your best to ignore those problems and instead concentrate on the positives of such an unusual effort, then you might be able to appreciate Unfriended as I did.
3.25 stars out of 5