* * 1/2
The creepy teen cyber thriller Unfriended is patently ludicrous and low-concept—six teens connected via video chat are stalked and dispatched by an Internet troll that turns out to be the vengeful ghost of their bullied best friend, who killed herself over their online taunting.
We know this—a year ago, put-upon Fresno junior Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) took a gun to her head after relentless social media taunting, which may or may not have been exacerbated by her own clique. That group includes best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Blaire’s horny boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), Mitch’s wild-card buddy Adam (Will Peltz), token blonde Jess (Renee Olstead), computer geek Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and bitchy Val (Courtney Halverson).
The picture opens as the group convenes for a little online socializing, but things quickly go south when Blaire and Mitch begin receiving puzzling instant messages from deceased Barnes, which at first they take for a prank before increasingly becoming frightened when the phantom infiltrates their group chat. Some poltergeist-type activity kicks things off—inappropriate photos are posted on multiple Facebook pages—but before Blaire digests an article titled “Don’t Reply to Messages from the Dead,” they’ve already gone down the rabbit hole.
Produced by Russian maverick Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and directed by Leo Gabriadze (Lucky Trouble) from a screenplay by Nelson Greaves (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Unfriended cleverly and believably contrives to keep the terrified gang in front of their computers long after we wonder why they don’t just pull the plug. The malevolent presence controlling their hardware is genuinely unsettling, a worst-case-scenario troll who ups the ante during the film’s too-long sequence, a game of “Never Have I Ever” where they turn against each other in bids to save their own hides.
As silly as the film’s premise seems—and that is to say significantly—Unfriended is a moderately effective and passable horror flick with a timely topic, and there’s a kick in watching the picture—which takes place entirely within chat windows and across instant messages—dole out nasty retribution for the unlikable cool kids who each have it coming. They are cheaters, liars, connivers, loudmouths and duplicitously self-absorbed. They are also fun to watch, and I was held by Unfriended’s entire 85 minutes.
Sprung from the cyber-bullying headlines and costing a mere $1 million to make, Unfriended gets props for building and sustaining an atmosphere of fear without overt scare tactics or special effects, rather an effective sense of being stalked and cornered by a much smarter opponent.
And there are some genuinely spooky moments, such as when one character discovers something lurking in the rear of his room, and some malicious chat from the deceased that lays bare all secrets.
Once you acclimate to the picture’s techno rhythms—windows popping open and closed, conversations shuttling back and forth between group chats and private messages—the movie sustains its pace and earns its shocks. And star Hennig (Ouija), a former Miss Teen USA, is particularly vivid at conveying some raw emotions in close-up, acting her way out of the confines of her respective window box. It’s a nice performance when you consider that she, and the rest of the cast, is essentially acting alone, in real time, without face-to-face scene partners.