Unfriended

May 15, 2015
Shelley Hennig &  Moses Storm in 'Unfriended (2014)
Shelley Hennig & Moses Storm in 'Unfriended (2014)

Don’t answer text messages and emails from dead people. They’ll only force you to kill yourself, which is really tiresome. This is the important lesson to be learned from Unfriended, an ingenious new take on the teenage slasher film. It may be the cheapest movie you’ll see this year, clocking in at no more than US$1 million.

For 83 hypnotic minutes we stare at a computer screen that fills the entire frame. For many of us it’s merely an extension of our daily routine. This screen belongs to Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), a teenage schoolgirl in Fresno, California. Blaire has logged on to talk with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Storm), but just as the flirtation is developing, they are joined on Skype by three other school friends – Mitch’s gung-ho pal, Adam (Will Peltz); blondie, Jess (Renee Olstead); and fatso computer whiz, Ken (Jacob Wysocki).

As the friends indulge in the usual teenage banter they find they’ve been joined by another online presence – billie227, represented by the faceless blue Skype silhouette. Try as they might, they can’t shake off this cyber-stalker who is party to all their conversations.

In the time-honoured horror tradition it is exactly one year since the suicide of a classmate, Laura Barns, who had been humiliated on social media after a drunk and disorderly night. It seems that billie227 is Laura’s ghost, or some sympathetic spook, who has returned to settle the score with her former friends.

Little by little the unseen hacker reveals every dirty secret these teens have been concealing from each other. It wants to play a truth game, and warns that anyone who tries to switch off the computer will die. Such warnings have never prevented characters in horror movies from acting irrationally, and Unfriended is no exception. As the cast is whittled away we fall into a scenario reminiscent of the classic Agatha Christie story filmed by René Clair in 1945, And Then There Were None.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of this movie is the incredible dexterity Blaire and her chums have developed with the keyboard. They flip from one platform to the next in seconds, with the screen filling rapidly with open windows.

The angry ghost is less easily impressed. As usual, the supernatural presence is in no mood to listen to excuses or go easy. Only death will satisfy its sense of justice, death inflicted with a modicum of gore and violence.

The antecedents for Unfriended are obvious: the hand-held-camera cheapies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the seemingly endless series of Paranormal Activity films. The computer screen motif might sound tedious, but it proves to be far more engaging than watching dopes running around with a videocam, shouting “Arrrghh!!”.

Russian director, Leo Gabriadze, has kept everything quick and lean, while Nelson Greaves’ script suggests he has spent many hours listening to the way teenagers talk, which is already scary. He also injects a macabre sense of humour, as the ghost raids Blaire’s iTunes playlist in search of appropriate music. Even the title is bleakly funny – a severe understatement of fact in familiar jargon.

There is always a moral dimension to the slasher film and this one highlights the scourge of cyberbullying in which cowards who hide behind pseudonyms seek victims on-line. Laura Barns is not the only teenager that has committed suicide after being attacked by trolls, although you probably have to be fictional to come back to seek revenge. In the absence of supernatural aid we’ll have to rely on George Brandis to sort through the metadata. As Edward Snowden has demonstrated there is already a ghost in the machine and it’s called the government.

Unfriended
Directed by Leo Gabriadze
Written by Nelson Greaves
Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman
Russia/USA/Poland/Germany/Puerto Rico, rated MA 15+, 83 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th May, 2015.