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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘Unfriended’ – One of the Best Screenlife Horror Movies Turns 10 This Year

Back when Unfriended was still going by the title of Cybernatural, director Leo Gabriadze said he came onto the project because he was attracted to the story’s subject matter. Nelson Greaves’ script demonstrated how personal harassment had since changed in the digital age; in particular those younger people whose torment went beyond the classroom. The internet had not only made a bully’s reach greater but also unavoidable. And in true horror fashion, Unfriended provided an unsettling portrayal of victimhood as well as sadistic retribution from beyond the grave.

Unfriended immediately broke tradition by staying close to home as opposed to traveling to the deep, dark woods or anywhere else teens tend to go and die in horror. More unusual was the unexciting premise of these characters video-chatting all night instead of meeting in person at an ominous social event of some kind. After years of critics reproaching the genre for its endless use of foolish and unsound decisions to progress the story, and audiences yelling in frustration as brainless teenagers walked toward rather than away from danger, here was a film that found terror in the most innocuous of modern adolescent diversions. Even the film’s sex component was as safe as mere abstinence; the only harm of webcam foreplay is the audience’s secondhand embarrassment. Despite the different venue and presumed security of camming with pals, these internauts met the same fate as their on-screen predecessors who ventured out into the real world.

Things begin a bit tedious — only after setting up the past sin that the characters now all share — as part of that need to make the inevitable chaos appear even wilder by comparison. Unfriended, however, moves at a brisker pace than its ilk, due in large part to the screenlife format. The film is presented in breaknecking real-time, so everything happens as instantly as a mouse click. Eager audiences benefit from that immediacy, seeing as there is next to no wait time once a character is handed their death card. Regardless of the fast speed at which this film operates, though, Gabriadze still managed to create tension. On that first watch, the story is quite unpredictable.

Pictured: Heather Sossaman, as Laura Barns, appears in the “LAURA BARNS KILL URSELF” video in Unfriended.

As the six characters log on for their virtual hangout, the ostensible final girl of the group, Blair (Shelley Hennig), detects the stranger among them. Mysterious and uninvited user “billie227” turns out to be no random troll but someone who is, supposedly, masquerading as Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). As shown in the prologue, this late classmate of Blair took her own life exactly one year ago, and a bystander’s recording of her death has since become a shock clip. Blair herself was revisiting both it and the motivation for Laura’s suicide, an embarrassing viral video, shortly before everything goes down. Coincidences are rare in horror, and based on the genre’s history of calculated and grisly vengeance, billie227 could only be a hacker hellbent on retaliation. Refreshingly, Unfriended takes a slightly different path toward its familiar destination.

Beneath the tech-driven exterior of the film sits a conventional idea, but Unfriended’s approach to systematic teen butchery is less routine. Greaves takes the phrase “ghost in the machine” literally as Laura’s enraged spirit wreaks havoc in the characters’ computers and online spaces. Meanwhile, prior screenlife horrors, like Megan is Missing and The Den, and this film’s own unrelated sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, delivered tangible threats for netizens. The concept of internet strangers finding their way into homes is daunting and more plausible, but there are logical constraints to consider. For those not preoccupied with total believability, an omnipotent e-phantom helps make the absurd possible. The authentic applications and services seen all throughout the film (Gmail, Facebook, Skype), in lieu of the artificial equivalents usually present in found-footage cinema, then restored some of the realism lost after adding a supernatural element.

It has been ten years since Unfriended premiered at Fantasia Fest. And in that time, “netiquette” has changed, albeit not completely. What was pretty common at the time, namely capturing and then sharing people’s worst moments online, still happens these days, of course. Now there is a vocal degree of empathy to go with the mockery. A decade ago, it was more acceptable to indulge in the mass cyber-shaming of whoever was unlucky enough to get caught on camera. Additionally, internet speak has softened to the point where comedic yet violent slang — “DIAF” was a popular one — is nonexistent in certain digital spaces. The title of the video which led to Laura’s suicide (“LAURA BARNS KILL URSELF”) was spot on with this type of flippant language, although the actual content of said recording is pretty damn mean-spirited, even when taking the standards of yesteryear into account. 

unfriended screenlife movie

Pictured: The other characters watch as Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson) awaits her death in Unfriended.

This film is not without its hurdles. For starters, Blair and her friends (played by Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki and Courtney Halverson) are impossible to care about, even before the story reveals their part in Laura’s death. Their grating personalities are understandably enough to make anyone want to end this chat session early. As viewers continue watching, however, that sky-high level of loathsomeness is clearly intentional; Unfriended wants everyone to side with Laura (and they do). Another defense of the characters: the truth is, a lot of people are just plain unpleasant. Especially at an age where hormones run wild, maturity is a work in progress, and morality is, at best, questionable. There is also the complaint of the film’s lack of real scares; indeed the over-the-top and, at times, telegraphed deaths have more of a schadenfreude quality to them. Even so, it is what Gabriadze chose not to show directly on screen that is often more frightful.

Unfriended is criticized for simply putting a brand-new coat of paint on something old, and delivering an otherwise valuable message about bullying and empathy inside an unbecoming package. Nevertheless, this is an effective and ambitious interpretation of what it means to grow up with and live on the internet. The fact that none of the characters ever think to leave their computers as soon as all hell breaks loose is an eerie statement about the chronically (and tragically) online. Whenever Unfriended feels too niche, heedless of its own amusing and innovative execution, the film is a reminder of how there is virtually no escape from the internet anymore. And getting on its bad side would be a dreadful mistake.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

unfriended screenlife horror

Pictured: The Unfriended poster.

The post ‘Unfriended’ – One of the Best Screenlife Horror Movies Turns 10 This Year appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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