Thursday, 23 April 2015


I'll be honest, when I first saw the title and promo material for Unfriended (previously known as Cybernatural), I was dubious. It looked like yet another cookie-cutter PG-horror starring achingly hip teen TV stars who spew jarring faux-Whedonesque pop culture references at an alarming rate, while a soundtrack chosen by committee pumps out all the 'coolest' songs in the chart right now, which only serves to date the film terribly in just 18 months. Oh, and did I mention the online gimmick that has plenty of potential to either become ridiculously convenient or just a monumental waste of time?
OK, maybe that should have read 'very dubious'.
But then the unthinkable happened — the first reviews came out from festivals and they were good. Like, excellent, in fact.
Could it be true?
This week I sat down to a screening of the movie intrigued as to what I might witness. Could this be a bonafide horror hit? Or was my initial reaction right after all?
Read on...


Dir: Leo Gabriadze
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverston, Renee Olstead, Jacob Mysocki, Heather Sossaman

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

One evening Blaire (Hennig) sits down for a group Skype chat with her doting boyfriend Mitch (Storm). As things take a turn for the raunchier they are joined by their gang of online friends, including hotheaded bad boy Adam (Peltz), sharp tongued bitch Val (Halverston), dim but fun Jess (Olstead) and zany techno-nerd Ken (Mysocki).
As the trendy young things discuss the events of their lives the group chat is crashed by an unknown intruder.
Confusion turns to horror after the interloper, billie227, is revealed to be using the account of one Laura Barns (Sossaman) an old acquaintance of the group who committed a very public suicide one year ago, after a humiliating video was circulated showing her drunk at a party.
Now this 'vengeful spirit' aims to get to the bottom of the plot that led to her messy, lonely death... and she plans to punish and ruin each of those she holds accountable.

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): For those who don't know, Unfriended is built around a key gimmick — the entire film unfolds on one character's computer desktop.
It's a risky concept, but it is wonderfully executed. The film uses the resource of browser windows to perfection, dropping YouTube videos in to give us some flashback moments, while web page visits help serve an expository purpose as the events continue in real time. The format allows us a glimpse at a sort of internal monologue as we see half-typed Facebook and iMessage communications that are written and rewritten as Blaire (Hennig) second guesses herself and her relationships with the other characters. Hell, even the cool soundtrack makes sense as the background music is coming from her iTunes or Spotify accounts.
Yes, this is a gimmick, but it's one that is very well done and its cleverness is worthy of praise. Congratulations must go to the man behind the concept, Timur Bekmambetov (yes, the brains behind the Night Watch flicks) and also to director Gabriadze for the way in which he ran with it.
Of course, an innovative storytelling method is not enough to carry a film if the story itself is not sufficient. Luckily the tale, crafted by TV's Sleepy Hollow writer Nelson Greaves, is pretty cool, an old-fashioned, supernatural revenge-thriller wrapped up in a modern-day, social-media parcel. With cyberbullying and online trolling a hot topic now it also touches on the sort of stories that could be taken straight from news headlines. Furthermore, parallels are neatly drawn between the undead and otherworldy spirits and the fact that once something reaches the web it never dies, living on indefinitely in the nethersphere. It's a valid point, and one that is more than a little unnerving.
The plot is pretty simple but compelling, with enough substance to keep the audience hooked for the duration of its runtime. This is thanks in no small part to the characters. The leads are given nice arcs and each character has moments in which they shine. The story hangs around Blaire — it's her laptop screen we are viewing after all and the private messages she sends give us a deeper insight into her thoughts and fears. Hennig brings her to life wonderfully, she has a sweet, good-girl quality about her that perfectly suits the role. Equally, Storm, as her love interest and nice-guy boyfriend is excellent, the private messages between the two helping to flesh out their relationship and his exchanges with her and best buddy Adam are some of the highlights of the film. It is Adam's more unstable personality that acts as a catalyst for some of the finest scenes in the film, particularly the 'Never Have I Ever' sequence late on.
In a film with some surprisingly gory and unpleasant deaths I think it is a testimony to the character work that some of the most devastating moments come when billie221 forces the group to start to reveal some deep dark secrets, tearing relationships apart in the process as the friends turn on themselves.
What some viewers may not realise is that the natural nature of the interactions between these characters comes down to the fact that a lot of each performance was improvved — and each cast member performed their role a few times in a single take. This information added a tonne of respect for the cast who not only nailed their roles, but did so with a whole new level of pressure. I'm not just talking about the aforementioned Hennig and Storm (both of whom will undoubtedly have very bright futures), but also the impressively high-octane Peltz and fast-talking funny man Mysocki, whose work as a standup comedian served as ideal preparation for the improvisational side. Furthermore the other leading ladies account for themselves admirably — Halverston is suitably hard-edged while Olstead could well make for a fantastic scream queen if she sticks with the genre. Fine work, ladies.
Their work helps ratchet up the tension in a suspenseful and creepy flick (one moment involving a static image and ringing phone is highly unsettling) with some proper horror cred. Earlier I mentioned some surprising and shocking death scenes and they really do deliver. The nightmarish blender scene stands out, but it isn't the only one to cause onlookers to squirm. One of the most upsetting is actually the grainy playground footage of Laura Barns' suicide. It works because it is frighteningly realistic, especially in a world where horrifying videos such as these exist (see Budd Dwyer — actually, on second thoughts, don't).
The gruesomely realistic effects work is just one area in which the thoroughly effective creative process brings this world to life. The film totally feels like it is happening on one laptop in a very real world. I was impressed to hear that each of the cast members filmed their sequences in different rooms in a single house, as production designer Heidi Koleto and art director Brooks Fairley do a tremendous job at making the sets distinctive from one another, while cinematographer Adam Sidman ensures that the film always looks great, while not betraying or cheating with the limitations imposed by the movie's premise. A truly sparkling achievement in filmmaking.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): While Unfriended totally exceeded my expectations, some of my initial reservations did still crop up.

In a teen horror (which this is, albeit a very, very good one), the inherent unlikeability of most High Schoolers is always a barrier to enjoyment. Unfortunately here, as the film unfolds these characters become decidedly less sympathetic. The characters have some pretty terrible secrets. The 'Never Have I Ever' sequence, while excellently delivered, effectively eliminates a huge amount of empathy towards those whose dark secrets are laid bare. Of course, nobody deserves the horrors that billie221 subjects these characters to, but it does certainly shift the sympathy far more towards the deceased Laura Barns.
The fact that several of the characters state, in one form or another, that 'she had it coming', is utterly reprehensible and a perfect example of the way in which their actions can cause the viewer to turn on the very individuals that we are meant to be rooting for.
Speaking of morally dubious, the scene in which the otherwise likeable Mitch 'jokingly' seduces Blair into undressing by threatening her with a large hunting knife, is more than a little alarming. It borders on a rape fantasy and would perhaps have been best excised. I understand it was included for some hefty foreshadowing (ditto Ken's blender making an early appearance) but it still made for some uncomfortable viewing.
On a final character note, some were definitely given significantly shorter shrift and less rounding out than others. Obviously, as a direct result of the 10 Little Indians-style, one-by-one death scenes some are going to get less screen time, but those that get the least are reduced to very basic character stereotypes. Luckily the cast all do brilliant work with what they were given so it isn't too bad of a problem.
Finally, the static nature of a computer screen does drain some of the dynamism of the film a couple of times. For example, there is time spent just watching text slowly appear on screen as messages are typed. This fulfils a vital role in fleshing out the characters, but sadly it does pull us away from the action. Equally, the various glitching and buffering moments really are a pain at times. While they are used to heighten the tension during some key moments, leaving us in suspense as we wait to see what fate has befallen Blaire and her friends, at others it just serves as a huge annoyance. Perhaps less could have contributed more here.

THE VERDICT: While it isn't a perfect movie, Unfriended is far better than I believed it had any right to be. More than anything, as an experiment in a new filmmaking and storytelling technique it is brave, innovative (although not the first film to attempt to use browser windows for this purpose, both The Den and Open Windows take a similar approach, albeit less full-on and well executed as here) and, ultimately, a tremendous, intelligent success. Even without the timely anti-cyberbullying message, the fantastic performances and top-notch horror moments, the sheer cleverness of the movie would be enough to make me recommend it to you all. They just make the recommendation that much stronger. See it.

If the film hasn't put you off the whole social media thing, you can visit the Unfriended facebook page here. Feel free to give it a Like while you're there too.

If you haven’t already, do please check out and like the Hickey’s House of Horrors Facebook page, which you can find here. It gives you a nice quick link to any new posts on this blog, plus regular news updates from around the web. I check the Internet so you don’t have to! Alternatively, follow me on twitter: The House@HickeysHorrors

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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