That a film that exists entirely within the framework of a computer screen functions as a compelling horror is surprising. That the performance of computer programs with which we’re all familiar not only propels the ambition of the filmmaker forward but also offers an entirely unique perspective on communication in film is remarkable. The format that Unfriended, the new horror film by Leo Gabriadze, operates under should be prohibitive, and to a degree it is, but Gabriadze embraces every new possibility that a film playing out on a computer screen can offer. It may have adopted it’s aesthetic, perhaps an extension of the found footage craze that has begun to suffocate low-budget filmmaking, as a result of financial restraints but it’s no stretch to suggest that Unfriended would have been far worse off had it not been set within the confines of a computer screen.
Look at face to face communication, both in reality and within the context of a diegetic conversation. Once something has been said, there’s no unhearing it. Now consider the freedom of hesitation afforded to us by the nature of online communication. A typed response via Instant Messenger or Facebook or Skype can now be considered and reconsidered. The way Gabriadze exploits this idea to convey both character development and narrative is welcomely thoughtful, especially considering the expectations one has going into a move set entirely over Skype. A question is posed over Instant Messenger and a response is typed, but not sent. The response offers crucial information about one of the characters involved that would otherwise not have been mentioned. The response is deleted and another written in its place – similar but not the same – offering new information and driving the plot forward. It’s a form of filmic communication that may be completely singular to Gabriadze’s film.
For all the innovation of the concept, the plot is somewhat more straightforward. Six friends convene over Skype after school to chat, as real teens are possibly sometimes want to do. It’s the anniversary of the death of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a student at their high school who committed suicide after a video of her at drunk and out of control at a party surface online and she was met with a torrent of cyber-bullying as a consequence. The online conversation is joined by a mysterious seventh attendee, initially taken by the friends as a hacker until it’s revealed that the stranger has far more sinister intentions toward them, startling control over their own computer systems and impossibly intimate knowledge about their past mistakes.
It’s not difficult to imagine that Unfriended was conceived in review of the increasing dominance of computer-based film viewership and it’s certainly a horror that may well be more effective when watched on a laptop. The entire image of the movie is the computer screen of Blair Lily (Shelley Hennig) but the interface generates a certain immersive empathy within the viewer. If the idea wasn’t to make us feel like the eighth member of the group then it’s a happy byproduct. Gabriadze embraces all aspects of online life, from the freedom and speed of information offered by a Google search to including the same Facebook friends – people who don’t appear in the movie – on various characters’ inboxes, Facebook walls etc. as means of world building. It’s simple enough stuff, but there’s thoughtful attention to the way it’s applied here.
There’s more to the gimmick than aesthetics and tricks. Gabriadze is compelled by the arena of cyberbullying and each of his characters are guilty of thoughtlessly mistreating their peers. Bullying is a natural enough pasttime for high school students and the anonymity, scope and permanence that the internet offers must take teenage persecution to disturbing standards. There are moments in Unfriended in which characters are forced to consider their own behaviour, and their momentary disinterest in the situation at hand might by fanciful – if you believe that a ghost is wanting to murder you, whether your friend stole $800 off you might seem a slightly more trivial issue – but it’s a testament to Gabriadze that his film is neither shallow in its insight nor inconsequential in its use of Skype as a cinematic device. There are an awful lot of found footage films that don’t need to be found footage films. The computer interface is integral to Unfriended‘s success. There are also an awful lot of found footage films in which characters enter situations with a camera when it’s just not viable that someone would ever have a camera. There are no such logical leaps here.
Unfriended plays its hand too clearly in some moments, particularly when it comes to the consequences the characters face at the hands of their mysterious predator. Subtly and enigma might have been more effective than showy violence and absolute answers to questions are far less horrifying than ambiguity. But there’s a lot to admire about Gabriadze’s innovation, particularly with the hope that it won’t inspire a torrent of mimics. It’s not a natural thing to concede the merits of a film like Unfriended. It could seem like a cinematic regression, or a concession to the increasing cheap ways that we digest film. In many ways, it is. In a lot of ways, it’s a fascinating movie.