Film review: Online terror hits hyperspeed in Unfriended

Set entirely within the desktop of a high school senior’s MacBook, Levan Gabriadze’s unique twist on found footage in Unfriended (previously Cybernatural) spurs a folder full of innovation.

For the most part, the film does deliver a rather unsettling experience. However, a cast of didactic and mostly violently vocal teens seems to encourage cyberbullying rather than halt it.

After viewing the footage of her former friend’s suicide, Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is interrupted during an intimate cyber moment with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm). Jess (Renee Olstead), Val (Courtney Halverson), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Adam (Will Peltz) Skype themselves into the fray.

In the midst of planning for an upcoming night of debauchery, the group notices an unknown profile sharing their group chat. (Nothing is more terrifying than the overuse of ellipses during instant messaging.) The user claims to be aforementioned suicide victim Laura (Heather Sossaman), seeking revenge for the viral ridicule she endured due to an embarrassing video. Harmless hacks become lethal assaults as the digital poltergeist demonstrates its possessive abilities. Gradually, the individuals admit their most depraved secrets as the damage wrought is far too powerful for any task manager to force-quit.

Early praise can be awarded to Gabriadze’s ability to conjure several powerful scares via an LED monitor. From the initial distortion of Universal’s mark to the subtle tweaks in Facebook’s interface, the territory the filmmaker bounds is more than familiar to most of us. Likewise, the parade of modern software, including Spotify and Finder, drives this point even further. For many of us, a crashing program or unresponsive peripheral evokes inexhaustible hatred, and to suggest a malevolent force might be the cause is frighteningly brilliant.

Timing is adequate and tension, though at times comedic, serves its purpose — I can safely say that I have never been put on edge by an operating system’s emptying recycle bin before this film. In other instances, however, too much attention is placed on the characters’ tendency to one-up one another in derogatory ways. For example, one might think a violent death would be enough to shunt misogyny, yet the male teens’ ability to objectify their female counterparts goes entirely unaddressed. Most horror films will, by default, emphasize a protagonist’s most pressing, underlying flaw, yet the focus here is misdirected.

Likewise, it is a bit odd that a victim of severe harassment finds glee in conjuring up much of the same. Vengeful justice is key in many movies of this nature, but when done well, it educates.

However, Laura seems completely satisfied with cultivating a community built on mob ridicule. Why would one focus on a few (albeit terrible) individuals when it was ultimately the voice of thousands that spurred her demise? This method unfortunately concludes without a satisfying reason.

Still, the film does put forth a unique turn on terror. Finding unaddressed horror in the most common of venues is the sign of an early master of horror.

Print headline: Cyber ruffian, Online terror shifts into hyperspeed as a suicide victim exacts her revenge in Unfriended.

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