The found footage sub-genre is the fresh and disturbingly authentic offspring of its ever-evolving horror forefather. Renowned for its allegiance to the point-of-view shot, its shaky aesthetic and regularly screaming ensemble, the sub-genre first exploded in 1999 when The Blair Witch Project was unveiled to unacquainted audiences. To the younger generation and those familiar with the emergence of lightweight cam-tech, it was seen as an exciting, much-needed new turn for the genre, but to some a frustratingly tedious watch. A decade and a half later, Unfriended is being screened to reception parallel with its originator.
Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended is an innovative reboot to the sub-genre. Rather than exhausting the much-indulged lightweight camera/mobile phone mini-cam to capture the scares, the entirety of the 83-minute running time is caught from the top-centre webcam from the laptops/desktops of our teen characters. Whilst collaborating with talented, efficient editors Parker Laramie and Andrew Wesman, the up and coming Russian director masterfully immerses the audience into the screencast of high school student Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). Blaire would casually interchange from scrolling through creepy forums on Safari to discussing rumours with her friends on Skype and then to viewing death-threatening messages on Facebook. Laramie and Wesman carry out these transitions very smoothly and keep the audience absorbed and edge-seated throughout.
When the group’s evening Skype-chat is interrupted by an unidentified blank profile that silently listens and watches, they assume it is nothing more than an infamous internet troll. With no way of booting the troll or blocking it, the group have no choice but to continue chatting whilst the troll maintains its unsettling presence. Some of the friends start receiving messages on Facebook from Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a former friend who committed suicide a year prior. Immediately assuming her profile has been hacked, the group turn on each other, accusing one another of the sickening prank. The blank profile’s identity is then ascertained, Laura (or is it?) reveals herself and proceeds to play a “game” with the group further denting each of their so-called integrities, revealing their deepest and darkest intertwining secrets that deceive, betray and destroy.
Clearly, the storyline is oversimplified and grossly coherent but there is valid justification for this and Gabriadze should be aware of it. Unfriended is about a contemporary group of teen friends whose chats consist of bitching, backstabbing and rumour spreading. Because, well, how exciting is a night in the life of a teenaged girl or boy? They finish school, return home, complete homework (maybe), eat their dinner, spend the remainder of the night on their computer and then go to sleep. This routine is about as simple as Unfriended gets, only it examines the computer aspect and no more. This is what makes it feel frighteningly authentic, a very good touch by Gabriadze if the simplicity is intended. Nelson Greaves carried out much of the actual scriptwriting in post-production, which explains its basic nature, but like many found-footage horrors, they do not require ground-breaking storylines and poetic dialogue, just a relatable premise audiences can empathise with.
Like Unfriended’s recently released counterpart, It Follows, the group of young friends are alone throughout the film without the helping hand of an adult or parent figure. Hennig, Sossaman, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki and Courtney Halverson do enough to carry Unfriended’s straightforward storyline and dialogue and actually really capture the typical teenaged minds they are depicting. However, in times of melodrama or scenes of terror, audiences may even find the characters’ reactions annoying and perhaps borderline funny. This is not necessarily a criticism of the actors’ abilities as individually they do have decorated profiles, but in many found footage horrors the film would desperately try to lean closer to the sense of absolute realism, but occasionally this has a knock on effect – this being the zero sense of attachment audiences have for the on-screen characters, The Blair Witch Project being notable once again.
Unfriended throws people out of their seats like Paranormal Activity did; it grosses-out audiences that witnessed the blood and gore of superb Spanish horror [REC]. Its depiction of what ‘might be real’ will immensely creep audiences out similarly to how The Blair With Project did so also, but Unfriended‘s true message about contemporary high school teens and 21st century computer-tech is what should really scare those watching. The reality is that the teens are the youngsters growing up everywhere in western society today. Anybody is one of the characters in Unfriended – feel free to choose one. Everybody has bitched, backstabbed and rumour-spreaded at one point in their lives, perhaps to a lesser extent, and what takes place in Unfriended are the exaggerated consequences. Maybe a high school victim will rise-up and use their bully’s own medicine against them on the social-networking platforms where these poisonous components of growing up are carried out in the age of the MacBook.
Unfriended does not only provide audiences an indication of how the found footage sub-genre has required much innovation since its formulator, The Blair Witch Project, but also how western culture has evolved too. It uses elements of past found footage horrors to its gain and it is commendable to witness a horror film use these components whilst attempting to turn a corner as well. However, despite the intentions it is more about what Unfriended informs us about the younger generation and contemporary internet platforms and foundations that is the true, terrifying horror.
In a century’s time, there will be hundreds of millions of Facebook profiles that belong to the dead and the forgotten. What if one of those profiles suddenly becomes active? A hacker, or something much, much worse?